Thursday, September 28, 2006

Quill Award Update

Today I'm firming up plans to attend The Quill Book Awards in New York City on October 10. As I mentioned a while ago, Mom's Cancer was one of five nominees for Best Graphic Novel, and the winners will be announced at a black-tie star-studded gala two Tuesdays from now. The event will even be taped for later broadcast on NBC-owned television stations.

I thought it was kind of odd that no one representing the Quill Awards ever contacted me, even to tell me I'd been nominated. I wondered if they planned to wait until voting was done on September 30, look over the results, and only invite the winners. But it turns out they've been talking to my publisher, Abrams, instead of me and Abrams was generous enough to buy a couple of the very expensive tickets for me and, most likely, Editor Charlie. Assuming I can book a flight, I'll be there. Charlie's offered his couch and even promised to straighten up the place a little.

Oddly enough, I do own a tux. It just seemed like something a grown-up should have. The last time I wore it was to a Girl Scout father-daughter dance early this year and I'm pretty sure there are still raffle prize tickets in the jacket pocket.

The way the Quill Awards work is that books were nominated in 20 categories by thousands of booksellers and publishing professionals, with the winners chosen by popular vote via the Internet. If you haven't voted, I'd be grateful if you'd go and vote for Mom's Cancer. You have until Saturday. (If you wanted, you could even vote for Mom's Cancer as "Book of the Year," but that's just getting ridiculous.)

I expect I'll have more to say on the subject sometime between September 30 and October 10. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Strange New Worlds

This'll be the last "Star Trek" post for a while, I swear. However, my friend, cartoonist, and fellow Trek fan Patricia Storms left a comment in my post of September 22 suggesting I list my favorite episodes. She didn't actually specify how many, but since she has three clear favorites I thought I'd try to match her. Interestingly, only my top two sprang instantly to mind:

1. Balance of Terror. If I had to put one "Star Trek" episode in a time capsule to explain to future generations what it was all about, this would be it: The battle of wits and wills between Kirk and his equally matched Romulan opponent, wonderfully and sympathetically played by the late Mark Lenard ("In a different reality, I might have called you friend"). The deliberate evocation of World War II submarine movies, right down to the Enterprise crew whispering as if the sound of their voices could somehow travel through space. Stiles finding a little love for Vulcans in his racist (specist?) little heart. I think this episode is the perfect balance of action, character development, and Roddenberrian idealism.

2. City on the Edge of Forever. Of course. A lot of fans would list it first, but I downgrade it only slightly because it was such an atypical episode; if it were the only "Star Trek" episode anyone ever saw, I suspect they'd find it a gripping story but not come away with a full appreciation of what the series was about. Still, it had Joan Collins in her prime, Spock at his most ingenious and loyal, and Kirk faced with a truly unwinnable dilemma. It was an unusually adult story with a great mix of drama and comedy (and it contains quite a bit arch comedy). I've read Harlan Ellison's book in which he complains about how his original script was bowdlerized by Roddenberry. Comparing the two, with all respect to Mr. Ellison, I think Roddenberry did him a favor.

3. A difficult choice. There are plenty of great episodes left to choose from, but do you go with high-concept sci-fi, drama, comedy? "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Corbomite Maneuver," Arena," "Doomsday Machine," "Tomorrow is Yesterday," "Amok Time," "Trouble With Tribbles"? Somewhat to my surprise, one did emerge to stand out in my mind. But I'm gonna have to explain.

"The Savage Curtain." A chubby rock monster captures Kirk and Spock and pairs them up with a fake Abraham Lincoln and Surak of Vulcan to fight four of the most evil characters in history (also fakes). I have no excuse; I just love everything about this episode and watch it with a dumb goofy grin every time.

One reason is that I was around 13 when a local television station began syndicating "Star Trek," which hadn't been on the air since 1969. They made a very big deal about it and kicked off the series with a midnight showing of "The Savage Curtain." I could barely contain my excitement waiting weeks for that midnight to roll around. So there's some personal nostalgia involved.

A better reason is that "The Savage Curtain" has one line of dialog that I think perfectly sums up everything "Star Trek" is about and has stayed with me all these decades later. Surak is the Vulcans' Christ/Buddha/Socrates who led them to the path of pacifism and reason. When Surak meets Kirk, he gives him the Vulcan salute and says, "In my time we knew not of Earthmen. I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us."

"I am pleased to see that we have differences."

That's just about all anyone needs to know about "Star Trek" right there.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


As I mentioned a week ago, we took my twin daughters to start college yesterday. I know they check my blog (I'm Dad; I know all!) and I don't want to embarrass them, so I'll just sum up the experience by saying I don't believe I've ever in my life been so happy and sad at the same time.

They'll do fine. And if my wife and I discover we still like each other after raising kids for 18 years (things look promising so far), we'll do fine, too. But it's a different world for everyone. Strange and unsettling.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Pitching to the Stars

I wrote about my great affection and appreciation for the original "Star Trek" a while ago, but in fact my relationship with the series goes a bit further than that. This is a story I don't tell very often--mostly because it ends in abject failure--but I did talk about it during my Comic-Con Spotlight Panel and I think it gives some insight into how I approached the writing of Mom's Cancer.

The 1960s' "Star Trek" was followed by another series that began in 1987 called "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It ran for seven seasons. I enjoyed the show as a fan, though never as passionately as I did its predecessor, and around the beginning of season six I heard from a friend that the show would consider scripts from unagented writers. This policy was unique in all of television and the news hit me like a thunderbolt. In a few weeks I came up with a story, figured out proper TV screenplay format, and sent off a full script with the required release forms. Shortly afterward, I followed with a second script, the maximum number they allowed.

I don't know how much later--surely months--I arrived home to a message on my answering machine. "Star Trek" wanted to talk to me. Neither of my scripts were good enough to actually shoot, but they showed enough promise that they were willing to hear any other ideas I might have. Would I care to pitch to them?

Yeah. I think so.

Paramount sent me a three-inch thick packet of sample scripts, writer's guides, director's guides, character profiles, episode synopses: all the background a writer would need to get up to speed (not that I needed them--I'd been up to speed since 1966). I spent several weeks coming up with dozens of ideas, distilled them to the five or six best, and made the long drive to Paramount Studios. Just getting onto the lot was a small comedy of errors: the guard at the gate didn't have my name on the list and I'd neglected to ask which office I was supposed to report to. Unlike anyone who's worked in Hollywood in the past 30 years, I wore a tie and sportcoat--a bad idea on a hot day when I was already inclined to sweat prodigiously. But I eventually made my way to the office of producer Rene Echevarria and threw him my first pitch. He stopped me after two sentences.

"We started filming a story just like that last week."

Crap. That was the best one.

Pitches two, three, four and five fared no better. After desperately rifling through my mental filing cabinet for any rejects with a hint of promise, I was done. In and out in less than 30 minutes, weeks of work for naught.

Still, I went home satisfied that I gave it my best shot. I wrote Rene a letter thanking him for the opportunity and expressing a completely baseless hope that he might give me another chance someday.

I got the next call a few weeks later. Rene had gotten my letter, looked over his notes, and decided that, although none of my pitches were good enough to shoot, I merited another shot.

Months later came my second try. Luckily, by now I was smart enough to spare myself the drive and pitch by phone. If I remember correctly, Rene liked a couple of my stories enough to take them to his bosses, but by this time the series was into its final season and the available episode slots were filling fast. In anticipation of the end of "The Next Generation," Paramount was already producing a successor series, "Deep Space Nine." In my last conversation with Rene, when it was clear "The Next Generation" was done with me, I asked if he could arrange for me to talk to "Deep Space Nine."

"Why would you want to pitch to those guys?" he asked, bewildered.

Nevertheless, I soon had an appointment to pitch to those guys, got another thick packet of blueprints and biographies, and started writing. I parlayed that opening into several pitches over the show's seven-year run, most to the very professional, generous and kind writer/producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe. And when Paramount started production on the next "Star Trek" series, "Voyager," I tried my old trick on Robert.

"Why would you want to pitch to those guys?"

So I got more packets of cool stuff, more experience, and more rejection. Although they liked some of my ideas enough to mull them over, I never got close. It was exhausting. At last, after eight or nine years and forty or fifty stories, "Star Trek" and I mutually agreed we'd had enough of each other and parted ways.

Lessons in Writing
Here's my point (and I do believe I have one, eventually): even as a complete failure, my experience pitching to "Star Trek" made me a better writer. What I realized was that the stories they quickly rejected focused on some science-fiction high-tech premise or plot twist, while the stories they liked focused on the characters. If I said something like, "Captain Picard begins at A, goes through B, and as a result of that experience ends up at C," I had their attention. I had to be hit over the head several times to realize that a good story isn't about spaceships or aliens or ripples in the fabric of space-time, but about people.

That sounds blindingly obvious, but I realized how unobvious it was as I talked to friends and family about the experience. As soon as someone realizes you have a distant shot at actually writing a "Star Trek" episode, they can't wait to share their idea with you (never mind how fast they'd sue if you actually used it). And literally without exception, every idea I heard from someone else was about a spaceship, alien, or ripple in the fabric of space-time. Not one that I recall even mentioned a character, how they'd react to the situation, or how they might be changed by it. Once I learned to look for it, it was striking.

These were lessons I internalized as best I could and took into the writing of Mom's Cancer. I realized early that my story couldn't be about the medical nuts and bolts of cancer treatment. First, because there are too many treatment options for anyone to cover; second, because I knew such information would be obsolete very quickly; and third and most importantly, good stories are about people. My book isn't about radiation and chemotherapy and cancer, but about what those things do to a family. If something I scripted or sketched didn't drive my mother's story--if the plot didn't serve the characters--I cut it.

Whatever success Mom's Cancer has had and will have, I think that was the key. With all due gratitude to all the Treks.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

For What It's Worth

Darrin Bell is the talented creator of the comic strips Candorville and Rudy Park, as well as the proprietor of a comics forum called ToonTalk that I visit from time to time. It's not the busiest forum on the Web, but it is a convivial place where a few pros hang out and happily share their advice and experience with anyone who asks. I pass some time there myself and recommend it.

A recent poster wrote that he had some gag writing experience and wanted to try drawing his cartoons as well. He's taking some classes and already knows he has to "practice, practice, practice." But, he asked, what exactly should he be practicing? It's a question I've been asked before, so I thought my reply might make a good blog post. Interestingly, I think it's one of those questions that every cartoonist would answer in their own way (in the ToonTalk thread, it sparked a discussion about the merits of "simple drawing" versus "bad drawing") and reveals more about the respondent and their philosophies of cartooning than it does cartooning itself.

Anyway, here's what I wrote. By the way, if anyone can help me track down that Thurber anecdote I alluded to and probably butchered, that'd be great.

Some of my comments will repeat others, but I'll try to distill my thoughts and advice as best I can. All below is only my opinion:

Absolutely give drawing a shot yourself. Even if you eventually decide your art doesn't have the quality you're looking for, getting a feel for how words and pictures can combine to create something bigger than either of them alone will make you a better cartoonist. When the art supports the gag and the gag illuminates the art, and neither communicates the full idea without the other, that's good stuff.

Learn what you can from the work of others but spend most of your time drawing from real life. I think cartooning is about simplifying things to their essence. Good cartoonists know what to leave out. Don't draw Jim Davis eyes or Garry Trudeau eyes, look in a mirror and draw your own eyes, then draw them over and over until you can express as much with two lines as you originally did with 20. I think studying the work of other cartoonists can be a very helpful part of that process as you specifically look to see how they solved the same problems.

(There's a cartooning story I've always liked and unfortunately I don't have time to look it up, so this may not be accurate: I think it involves James Thurber, who was accosted by a reader demanding to know why he got paid a princely sum to draw a cartoon that consisted only of three squiggly lines. He answered, "If I could've drawn it with two, I would have charged twice as much." Again, accuracy not guaranteed, but illustrative of a good point.)

Re: developing your own style, comic book artist Neal Adams has said that "style" consists of the mistakes artists make that keep their art from being a perfect representation of the thing they're drawing. If we were all perfect artists, all of our drawings would be identical photo-realistic renderings. I don't think I completely agree with that, but it's food for thought. I do believe style evolves from choices--choices of material and media, scratchy vs. smooth, anatomically accurate vs. fantastically exaggerated, etc. Make enough of those choices for yourself and after a while, without you even consciously trying, your style won't look like anyone else's.

So, to your original post, I'd elaborate on the "practice, practice, practice" advice to suggest you practice drawing everything around you: telephones, cars, coffee tables, comfy chairs, cats and dogs, hands and feet. Draw them as well as you can, then "dial down" the realism. As an exercise, maybe see how little you can draw and still have your art communicate "telephone," "car," "chair," etc.

At this point, play with as many media as you can: markers, technical pens, india ink, brushes, nibs, washes, different textures of paper, digital. You could hit an art supply store and for probably less than $30 take home enough experiments to last a month. Give them all a fair try.

In addition to that, learn what you can about how the gag business works and how pros do their jobs. And take any chance you can to look at original cartoon artwork done by pros. When I set out to seriously study cartooning, I learned more by looking at a wall of originals for a few minutes than I could've via books or trial and error for years.

Good luck!

Sunday, September 17, 2006


My wife, two daughters and I are back home from a summer-ending trip to Disneyland. As I'm pretty sure I've mentioned once or twice, my twin daughters begin college in about a week (later than most, we know) and we wanted to send them off in style. We were also joined for a day by Kid Sis, who hadn't been to the original Magic Kingdom in years and I think had a good time with us.

Having written that, I almost feel like I'm unveiling a terrible secret: "Hi, I'm Brian, and I love Disneyland." It's not cool--in fact, pretty much the opposite. I'm embarrassed.

There is certainly an adult, rational, cynical side of my brain that understands the Disney Corporation to be a crushing behemoth that competes fiercely, exports some of the most vapid aspects of American culture around the globe, and never misses an opportunity to wring every last cent from its properties and customers. One of the great truisms of U.S. jurisprudence is "Don't Mess With Disney" because their lawyers will bury you. You don't have to explain that to me; I get it.

And yet....

There is the other side of my brain that grew up in 1960s' South Dakota watching the Mickey Mouse Club and Wonderful World of Disney (in COLOR! once we finally got a color television set). My Adult Brain knows now that those programs were little more than commercials for Disney theme parks and products (surely Uncle Walt invented multi-media synergy), but my Kid Brain saw them as windows into an exotic realm I would probably never enter. I had a friend who'd visited Disneyland and returned with one of the mouse-eared hats, just like the ones I saw on TV, and we treated it like a sacred holy relic. When he let me perch the ears atop my crew-cut for a moment, I felt cold, electrically charged mercury flow through my spinal column. He told and retold the stories of his travels and was a hero for days.

When I made my first visit to the park around age 9, I was not disappointed. And now that I have the means to visit Anaheim pretty much whenever I want--which since we've had children has been every couple of years--I'm still never disappointed. Fact is, I'd rather give my leisure money to the Disney Corporation than a Vegas casino, a cruise line, a liquor store, gasoline for a fast car, or whatever it is people spend their cash on in the name of fun. I find real value in the immersive environment, attention to detail, genuine commitment to pretty good customer service, and opportunities to evoke old memories while making new ones. I like studying how so many creative people have applied their talents for 50 years to entertain me. And I perceive a purity of intent and purpose that I think escapes Disney's harsher critics.

The Disney folks and I have a business arrangement: I give them money and they give me magic. It's a fair trade.

By the way, the photo above illustrates how empty Disneyland's Main Street was last Wednesday morning, our first day in the park. We walked onto ride after ride, with even the most popular demanding no more than a 10-minute wait. After years of only going during school holidays (because that's when our kids were free, just like everyone else's kids), it was an extraordinary experience that spoiled us. Nothing but off-season mid-weeks for us from now on, I'm afraid. If the kids can't make it, too bad for them. My wife and I will send them a postcard.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Dog Days

Apologies for my lack of posts lately. No big reason. Some weeks are just less interesting than others and I seem to be in a welcome end-of-summer lull.

Here's the latest thing I drew in my sketchbook, which may or may not have anything to do with future book proposals I may or may not be working on:

Was that vague enough?

I did recently finish a tiny project that I enjoyed very much. Mike Peterson is a journalist and friend I met on the newsgroup rec.arts.comics.strips. His job involves bridging the gap between newspapers and children--for example, developing a series of articles that newspapers can publish while local teachers follow along with related lesson plans. He's also responsible for the "Nellie Bly" series, in which a character named for the famous reporter explains current events to children (often with a thoroughness that educates adults as well) and "Drawing Conclusions," in which he dissects newspaper editorial cartoons for kids.

Anyway, Mike's latest project is a series explaining the science and mythology of the constellations. Although my astronomy pedigree is kind of dusty and rusty--dating back to my university days teaching astronomy labs and running public telescope viewing sessions, plus a weekly astronomy column I wrote waaaaaay back when I was a newspaper reporter--I volunteered to review Mike's drafts to spare him any embarrassment I could. Turns out Mike's a good writer who did his homework and also had a professional astronomer standing by, so I didn't have to do much.

But it was all good, fun stuff ... and also very important, I think. I worked for an astronomy professor who opened the first class of every quarter by pointing out how everyone pays obssessive attention to the half of the universe below eye level, but knows almost nothing about the half of the universe above. If you don't understand what's going on in the sky, he said, you're missing out on half of life. I don't know if that's actually profound, but it stayed with me. In addition, anything that impresses upon a young brain the notion that the universe has a lot of interesting questions awaiting even more interesting answers is enormously worthwhile. I can barely imagine a higher calling.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Miriam Engelberg Update

My friend* Miriam Engelberg has posted a remarkable "Comic of the Week" on her website. No telling how long it'll be there (typically a week, though recent weeks have been anything but typical) so check it out soon. [LATER UPDATE: The "Comic of the Week" to which I referred has been replaced and doesn't appear to be available online. However, Miriam's comics are always worth a look; click the link anyway.]

I gather Miriam actually did this a while ago. Her self-described "web slave," Gina, informed Miriam's mailing list that she has stopped chemo, is being treated well by hospice, is tired and experiencing some symptoms related to her brain tumors, and is doing about as well as can be expected. I'm really hoping for the best for Miriam and her family, even if I don't have a clear image of what "the best" would look like.

Miriam is the first to admit she's an unschooled artist. During part of our NPR "All Things Considered" interview that was edited out of the aired version, Miriam said something like, "I'm not a real cartoonist like Brian." She was wrong (not least because I hardly consider myself a real cartoonist either). Yeah, I can draw better than Miriam, but her latest work demonstrates how that's almost irrelevant. The mystery of cartooning is how it transcends its parts to become more than the sum of words plus pictures. I think her latest "Comic of the Week" is first-class cartooning.

*Footnote on the use of "friend": It's presumptuous of me to claim to be the friend of someone I've e-mailed a few times and met twice. But I couldn't think of a better word. Besides, she did offer to let me sleep on her futon; if that's not a friend, what is?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Quill Award Field Report

I mentioned on August 22 that Mom's Cancer has been nominated for a Quill Book Award in the Best Graphic Novel category. Voting is open to the public and winners will be announced October 10. The nomination is a surprising honor I'm very happy and grateful to receive.

That happiness and gratitude are only slightly tempered by what I see in the field. In the past few days I've been in two Borders stores and one Barnes & Noble (I like bookstores and, yes, I also patronize and treasure small independents) and seen no advertising, no ballots, no tables filled with Quill-nominated books, and no awareness among the staff at all. Keeping in mind that Barnes & Noble and Borders are two of the Quill Awards' corporate partners and are supposed to be promoting the thing, I was nonplussed. In one Borders I did find stickers on some Quill-nominated books (though not mine), so it seems like headquarters is at least making an effort. But judging from the blank stares I encountered everywhere, that effort hasn't percolated down to the workers who interact with the public. Two of the stores had sold out of Mom's Cancer (hoorah for me!) and, as far as the kids manning the computers knew, had no immediate plans to re-stock it (boo!), Quill Award or no.

The Quill Awards only started last year. I like the concept. Books are nominated by booksellers and other publishing professionals (which theoretically weeds out the riff-raff) and the winner is chosen by popular vote (which theoretically weeds out the critical darlings that no real people read). But looking over press reports of last year's awards, one repeated criticism of the Quills was that winning had very little impact on sales. There was no bounce.

That could be a consequence of the awards' newness. It takes time to build awareness and reputation. If my little microcosm of the literary world is any indication, however, it could also be because the folks who should be promoting the Quill Awards, and maybe even have a few copies of nominated books on hand in case somebody happens to ask for one, have never heard of them.