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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Simplyscript Radio Podcast on Alex Van Helsing, Shadowland & Writing

Something fun today: I did an interview with SimplyScripts, a screenwriting website I deeply admire devoted to screenwriting and writing in general. The interview goes into how we launched Alex Van Helsing, the differences between comics and novel writing, and more.

This was a great experience-- we recorded the interview by Skype, with the host in Florida and the producer in Australia, and me in my little red studio. Give it a listen-- and totally explore the site-- and leave some comments!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Law & Order & Lost say goodbye: Why no answer is often better

In Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, the unhappy doctor who has made a deal with the devil asks Mephistopheles to answer his many questions. One is a doozy; Faustus wants to know why eclipses and such are different from year to year: Well, resolve me in this question: Why have we not conjunctions, oppositions, aspects, eclipses, all at one time, but in some years we have more, in some less? 

Mephistopheles says immediately, On account of their unequal motion in relation to the whole.

You know what Faustus says? Well, I am answered. It's a colossal disappointment to receive an answer that you have not worked out for yourself. I think of Faustus often when I watch Law & Order, and this week Law & Order went away without burdening us in the way Mephistopheles burdened Faustus.

Just like that, while the world was watching Lost, one of the greatest shows ever came to an end: Law & Order, on the air for twenty full seasons, came to an end with a finale that wasn't even a finale. In a way this was fitting.

Sure, there could have been a series ender of the traditional sort, that saw fit to bring back favorite characters from the past-- I picture Michael Moriarty and Jill Hennessey for some reason on opposite sides of a case that manages to bring in everyone. That didn't happen because the show didn't plan to be canceled. I get that; a lot of us don't plan to be canceled and wind up that way.

I think I'm glad there was no finale, though. One thing I always appreciated about Law & Order was how it flouted convention, how it made a glacial suspense out of whether we might learn more about the characters. The show was about the crime of the day and the law to be applied, and though living humans investigated and lawyered, we weren't bludgeoned with endless discussion of what moved them, what they wanted, why they talked the way they talked, whether they wanted something more. We the viewers could guess at these things, but we saw only snatches, we would learn through a snippet of dialog that two characters had slept together-- a while back, so it doesn't matter now, and another character died, offscreen, but there's work to do, and you catch an instant of despair and that's all. There's plot going on in the character's lives, and if we pay attention we can glean it, and honestly whatever we glean will be better than whatever they could tell us. I simply loved this. I find the mystery more satisfying.

And as anyone who watched the Lost finale can attest (and really, did you expect a better experience than the equally disappointing X-Files finale?) explanations are bound to disappoint anyway.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Writing Shadowland: Daughters of the Dragon: A look at Page by Page Outlines for Comic Book Scripts

Last night I worked on Issue 2 of Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow for Marvel. The deadlines for this series are coming very close together:
  • Issue 1 script was due 5/14
  • Issue 2 script is due 6/4
  • Issue 3 script is due 6/25

So that means I need to hand over a 22-page comic script every three weeks. This is a luxurious schedule if you have a reasonable amount of time each day; I do my writing at night and three weeks is not a problem for a comic script provide that I know what the story actually is. That same story needs to be approved by various powers that be-- editors, managers, continuity experts, and in the case of a massive crossover like Shadowland, editors who are running the whole event.

We plan out what the story is through outlines and then even more granular outlines.

For Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow, before I go to full script, I write a page-by-page outline of the issue at hand in the comic. Actually, it's not quite page by page for me; this is another example where the only rule is whether it makes sense to the editor.I tend to take the 22 pages an break them into 3 Acts, with the scenes broken into pages. It looks like this:

The real benefit to the PxP is that everyone on the team can get a feel for whether they're on board with the script, its pacing, and what actually happens. 22 pages in a comic issue is not very much, so here, without having gone all the way to script, you already have a sense for whether you really have the room to tell the story you want.

I use an act structure because I use an act structure for everything, including individual scenes-- there is always a beginning, a middle and and end.

More next week!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Scripting Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow and new Alex Van Helsing edits

Tonight I'm working on two things-- the first draft of Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow for Marvel, and edits on Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the Undead, or so it's currently called (that book is still a year from release, so really, you never can tell. But I think we've got our title.) I'll get to edits on Alex later-- that deserves its own post-- but I wanted to talk about scripts. You may know all of this already; if so I apologize, and I welcome comments and counters.

So holy mackerel, I'm writing a comic in the Marvel Universe. That's a first for me, as far as the mainline Marvel Universe goes. I've written comics for years-- for Image, and IDW, and Tokyopop and Humanoids-- but the closest I've gotten to Marvel have been "pocket universe" stories, such as Hulk: Broken Worlds and a one-shot called Strange Magic. (Oh, and novels.) Writing in the universe where Spidey and Daredevil are just down the street is a breathtaking challenge and opportunity.

I'll also get to story later, because I wanted to spend some time on scripting.

A comic book script, if you're curious, is a thing with almost no hard and fast format. There are some excellent books on writing comics; Denny O'Neil wrote a favorite of mine, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, and he shows a format that doesn't look much like mine at all. His is very much designed for a universe of typing in a word processor or even a typewriter. Here's a look at it:
In O'Neil's scripts, he marks PAGES centered, PANELS on the side, and he even numbers the captions.

I don't do this at all-- here's a page from my script for a Hulk story I did a while back in an alternate-universe series called Broken Worlds.

-- which is to say, my scripts look like screenplays. I don't even number the captions. I do number the panels, but I don't bother to type PANEL before each panel, because once you get the idea that the numbers after every PAGE are panels, why waste ink?

Every writer does it differently, although most nowadays produce scripts that look a lot like screenplays. Stan Lee created the "classic Marvel" way of writing, which is to say no script at all; Lee wrote his early stories by providing several pages of plot synopsis; the artist would draw and Lee would then take a look at what he'd gotten back and put in the dialog and captions. This is how Lee was able to write so many comics-- while maintaining that recognizable voice.

The bottom line is that the script has to make sense to the artist and the editor-- it's a skeleton for the comic. Some writers are very prickly about their choices; if they break a page into five panels in the script, they mean five. I actually don't feel that way; I want to let the artist breathe; the caption breaks are there to give the artist a hint of the beats in the scene. To me, if a comic is like a film, the writer is the writer and the artist is the director. Except it's better than that, because when I get art back, I can tweak the dialog and captions through something called lettering guides, which I can blog about another time.

Of course let's say I have an editor who says, "Jason, in these parts we number our captions." And if so, that's why we are hired guns, and thy captions will be numbered. Rule #1: The editor is the boss. You are the gun.

Why do comics scripts look like screenplays today? I suspect it's because comics writers are more accustomed to reading screenplays, and many of them are also writing for TV and movies, and probably more importantly, because they tend to own screenwriting software like Final Draft, which makes scripting, with dialog centered and scene headings capped, easier than anything you could type by hand. Final Draft is not cheap-- Amazon has it for just south of $200-- but I couldn't function without it.

As writers, we can fall into the trap of obsessing about the minutiae of format and word counts and all the nuts and bolts of the business. I think this is because we believe in our hearts that these things are like magic words, and if we get them exactly right, we'll unlock all doors, and our work will be accepted, and readers will be thrilled. But the truth is that, as geeky as I can be about the nuts and bolts, these are just tools. I need to know how to use them, the way I need to know the rules of grammar. But no word count or format is going to create my work and get it accepted. Only the work in its totality can do that. That's a scary thought, but a freeing one if you have heart.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reviews & why we read them

-- or why I do, anyway.

I wanted to post an entry on reviews, because I think every writer looks forward to reviews, but we don't often talk about where they fit in the process. When I say "reviews," by the way, I mean everything-- once upon a time, a writer would publish a book and would get reviews in print, and maybe online, from a few select outlets, if they were lucky. Really big books would get reviews by papers, but generally you got reviews from places that specialized in watching the industries-- in the case of YA novels, places like the School Library Journal or the ALA. That's still true-- a book like Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising gets reviews from the journals if it's lucky, and so far we have been. What's changed is that today, books get reviews from readers.

I love this. Online reviews run the gamut from commentary that once would have been shared in letters, personal commentary about the book, to blog reviews that make up the new reality for books-- many, many reviewers, each of whom is both a reader and a writer. Amazon and Goodreads have perfected this.

So you may be asking: what does a writer do with a review? Why do we read them, and what are we looking for? There are a bunch of answers. I can only speak for myself. I'm a debut author in the YA industry, so to that extent this is all new to me, so these comments are sort of frozen in the now. Take that as a disclaimer should I change my mind later.

I read reviews:

  • To find out what people like. Alex Van Helsing is the first of three books, plus that series is not my only book project in the works, so to me reviews are invaluable research. They tell me what people are responding to and not responding to. In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about getting comments from multiple readers before you send a book in. His rule is that if the majority of the readers like one character, you can generally assume you've got the character nailed. If the majority hate a particular plot device, the device may have a real problem. These are rough estimates. Not all reviewers agree, but you get a sense for what the going feeling is. You can follow it or not follow it, but you ignore people's opinions at your peril.
  • For validation. That's a sad thing, but true enough. A book takes a long time, so it's tremendously validating-- that is, it makes us feel like what we do is worth it-- if someone out there looks at months of labor and says it gave them a worthwhile time. Anyone who builds tables for a living will tell you they get great satisfaction knowing someone loves the art they do; writers are the same way. Any writer who says they don't care is either lying or some kind of Vulcan. Most of us say we don't care because we know we also wind up reading bad reviews, and we have to come to grips with all kinds of questions, like whether we should weight them all equally. But come on, we're human, of course we care.
  • To help sell the work to other readers. No, really! Because if a bad review exists to-- well, why do they exist? I guess they exist to ward other people away from the misfortune of reading a book-- surely good reviews exist to bring other readers along. Authors use pull quotes where appropriate and hope that in the aggregate, we have more pluses than minuses. We want more people to read our books. Reviews help with that. That's why they're worth reading and following.
  • To know what's out there. Good, bad and ugly. I like to know what's being said in case it comes up in conversation. It would be absurd not to. And since I'm a new author, there's only a patter of conversation, so I can keep track of it. I can even say thanks to someone who's being kind.

Reviews are personal things-- they're written by a human being about another human being's work. In the day of the blogosphere, this is all the more true. I'm thrilled to be writing today.

Ask me again tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow-- soon I'll blog about the strange process of editing with an editor, who is like a reviewer, but plays an active role in building the work.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Colleen Wing: Daughters of the Shadow

Three different articles went up over the web today about the upcoming miniseries I'm writing for Marvel, called Shadowlands: Daughters of the Shadow.

For those who don't know, Shadowlands is a huge crossover event that features all the characters in the Daredevil camp. I've been asked to write a three-issue series on Colleen Wing, a samurai-sword-wielding assassin who has actually never had her own book before.

So far all that's hit the web are some interviews and a few character sketches. For me this is a huge opportunity-- to actually write a series in the Marvel Universe, and to do it with an all-female cast.

So: it's a challenge, because these are largely new and unknown characters. But I'm eager to get my hands dirty with it.

Read the CBR article here.

Read the Newsarama article here.

Read the Marvel.com article here.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Visit to St. Rita

Yesterday I dropped by St. Rita Catholic School for a visit with what ended up as about 300 students in an auditorium. The students listened to a presentation I had prepared called "Alex Van Helsing: Launching a YA novel series from pitch to shelves," which is actually kind of fun because the presentation goes over the many different versions of an idea a writer can go through before you finally settle on one. I like this sort of nuts-and-bolts talk a lot more than talking about the actual fiction, because talking about the world, the characters, just seems personal and self-serving. The preso ends of course with the release of Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising. We went into deadlines, drafts, formats, pitching, all of that.

The students really dug it. When we were done they asked lots of questions: what is your favorite scene? How long did it take to write the first draft? Do you get stressed out by deadlines? Have you gotten any starred reviews?

(Yes. A middle schooler asked me if I have received any starred reviews. By the way: yes.)

But you know what? I think I enjoyed it even more. I was genuinely struck by the enthusiasm the students had for reading and writing. What a great experience.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Author reads from Alex Van Helsing in HarperTeen Podcast!

Something fun just went up: over at the HarperTeen site, the gang has posted an Alex Van Helsing podcast. Head on over to listen to yours truly answering some questions on why I wrote this particular book and what the series might have in store, and then reading a key scene from the book.

This was a lot of fun-- I'd never done a book podcast, so this was kind of new-- and I'd love to hear your questions and comments.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"Alex Van Helsing" video interview at GirlsintheStacks

Girls in the Stacks is a book website by Shannan & Stacy, who do a really great job keeping their content lively and fresh. On any given day they'll have reviews, then an interview, then a podcast on a topic. Fridays are "faceout fridays," featuring interviews with authors.

Stacy, Shannan and I got together at Borders in Colleyville, Texas to talk about Alex Van Helsing-- it's a video interview, and you can check it out here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Examiner: Alex Van Helsing: 4 Stars

 Caitlin Stanford at Examiner weighs in today with a neat review of Alex Van Helsing. Caitlin, who recently did an interview with me on the book, gives Alex 4 stars:

And so begins the first adventure of Jason Henderson's wonderfully drawn character, Alex Van Helsing, in his debut novel for teens, Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising.  Readers are immediately thrown into the action with Alex Van Helsing.  Conflict arises on the very first page, almost in the very first sentence.  Readers are thrust into Alex's world like a stake to the heart, and it's an immediate rush.

Read the rest here!

Thanks, Caitlin!

The Lost Things We Watch & Read

A while back while I was between two excellent books I picked up and read a book that, probably, was not supposed to survive. The book was The Man From UNCLE: The Vampire Affair. A tie-in novel to the 1960's spy tv series, this book takes the intrepid international duo Solo & Kuryakin into the Carpathian mountains.

A couple notes here: One, I read this book as a kid and loved it, and read it over and over. Two, it was already old; I had picked it up for a quarter in a used book store, which is still a habit of mine. Three, my particular copy was lost long ago; the one I have was sent to me by a Warner Books editor who shared my passion for pop culture. Four, this book should be dead.

It's printed on cheap paper, this poor little book I enjoyed, which author David McDaniel probably pored over for, gosh, a month or so. It's a tight little spy thriller. It's one of millions of similar books. I'm not sure I learned to love reading or anything from it, but every one of these little stones probably helped. Would have to. But I'd expect it to be forgotten, for my copy to be the only copy anyone's noticed.

And yet by gum, there's a Goodreads page for it, and a bunch of blogs around the web have mentioned it. No matter what the work, someone out there thinks enough to say something. And that means that chances are, nothing ever gets lost. It's kind of amazing.

Today, oddly on the day my new book comes out, I'm back wearing my day job hat and speaking on a panel about media, and at night I plan to get together with a friend and watch, no kidding, a bootleg DVD of "Mystery in Dracula's Castle," a forgotten jewel-thieves-and-spooky-lighthouse story from the early 70s. (Bootleg, because it's out of print and there's no market big enough to print a DVD of it or, I guess, stream it.) How did it survive all this time? Through second-hand VHS, finally to someone's CD-R?

It is surely possible for books or movies you read or watch today to disappear. But I tell you: to make them disappear, someone would really have to work at it. There's a strange comfort in that.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Introverted Jen Review of Alex Van Helsing: 4 Stars, "Lot of Fun"

So one of the best things I've had to chance to experience in this whole novel-writing universe while writing and promoting Alex Van Helsing is bloggers--  writers who know what they're interested in and do reviews all over the web. For any new book or new writer, this is crucial support. Getting noticed by readers is so unlikely given the number of books coming out that every mention, every web comment, every reader is important. My publisher is HarperCollins, and they have a gazillion books a week to deal with. Your book has to sell itself-- but Harper understands the web, and that's why they build an awesome book site and make sure review copies get out their to web reviewers.

(From a publicity perspective, the web offers some danger to bigger, more established guys, because you'll have far more to keep track of online, and you have to start playing the numbers on which to respond to.)

But for me, with a brand new series-- a brand new brand, I guess-- in young adult fiction, the fact that we have early reviews is a tremendous blessing.

One of the sources of reviews for Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising is the Around the World Tour, which has taken one review copy and sent it, like the Traveling Pants, from one reader to the next.This has been fascinating for me because, of course, Around the World Tours tends to review all kinds of books on the YA side, especially long, romantic YA supernatural fiction and romance. So a shorter, actiony book with motorcycles and gadgets is a change of pace.

This morning we had another Around the World Reviewer check in about Alex, Introverted Jen: 
What a fun, action-packed story! It begins with Alex running toward a scream in the woods and ends on a very brooding scene that feels like a pause. Which isn't to say that this book feels incomplete; for the first in the series, it stands very well on its own. I know more is coming, I have one or two questions, but I'm happy with the way things ended.

You know who else is happy with the way things ended here? I am-- I'm very thankful for the trip through the fire with the Around the World Reviewers, who are taking on something a little unusual and being honest with it. Thanks guys!