November 2010

This is not productive

The last week or so has been spent in one of the regrettable artistic cycles, which goes something like this:

I have a great idea! I should do a painting of it!

I’ll start to work on it…oh, hey, that’s a GREAT idea! I should do a painting of that!

I’ll start to work on it!

But–oh man, that’s a fantastic idea! Let’s work on that!

By the end of a week, you’ve had a half-dozen brilliant ideas, and produced none of them.  Sigh.

The NaNoFiMo Report

A little over halfway through the month, and time to check in on my National Novel Finishing Month goals!

Which…are…um. Still goals. Yes. Haven’t forgotten them, have gotten a little done…not as much as I’d hoped.

I got the Thing With The Hedgehog up to the point I wanted early on, and it’s getting a couple of once-overs from friends before I ship it out to my agent—Penguin has bought three books I haven’t delivered yet (and they haven’t paid me an advance for yet) and the next major series after Dragonbreath is likely to be another comic-fusion thing (please god, let them want to buy it!) so we’re not exactly in a hurry to sell ANOTHER stand-alone–either I’d have to write another zillion words while doing everything else, or I’d be looking at a delivery date sometime in 2013 or so. Never hurts to have a solid project ready to go, though.

Managed to tack about 3K onto The Thing With The Goblins. It is definitely a novella, and we are rather closer to the climax. I know mostly what happens, I just don’t know quite how long it’s gonna take to get there. Hopeful that I’ll finish by the end of the month, but not really counting on it–still, if I can get another 7K on it, I will consider that a respectable showing, and that should get me pretty close to the end, possibly to the point where I can finish by the end of the year.

Kinda stalled on The Thing With The Birds. Realizing that I probably have to be Stephen King to do the next bit. Not sure how much of that I can channel.

So, um…one out of three ain’t bad. I guess.

On the bright side, I have gotten a LOT done on Campbreath, which is the, y’know, Actual Paying Project, and which is now 1/3rd done or thereabouts.  Even if I don’t hit all three of my NaNoFiMo goals, that’s a very solid showing on THAT and will keep me from having to write the whole thing in a single terrifying weekend in late December. (Don’t do this, kids. It’s not healthy.) So I think the writing has generally been a success, even if it hasn’t been as much as I’d like on the FiMo projects.

I also need to do three small framed pieces by the 26th, for the holiday art show at the local gallery.  And of course Digger, and of course, the continued three-Ghostbreath-a-day illos, plus this one great painting idea I had recently, and…yeaaaah. At the end of the month, I may not have gotten the full NaNoFiMo done, but I will certainly have gotten a LOT done, and sometimes you take what you can get.

The Hare In The Road

Mixed Media on board 9 x 12, ready to hang

It never failed, Erasmus thought. Not only was there a hare in the road, blocking his path and making him late…but they were wearing the same hat.

…I have no idea. It was a technique experiment, and I had this doodle of a really stupid looking dinosaur and one thing led to another…

(The technique in question really would probably work better on a bigger scale–can’t get fine enough detail at 9 x 12 for my tastes, and I kept scraping up the paint with the point of the colored pencil, which was incredibly aggravating. Need to let the gesso cure longer, I suppose.  But I do like the dinosaur.)

Anyway! Original is for sale, drop a line for pricing and availability, prints available.

How I Got An Agent, Revealed!

Okay, since a couple people asked, I will tell you the story of How Ursula Got Her Agent.

I will say first, however, that this is not normal.

In fact, it was such a stroke of stupid dumb luck that I kinda feel bad telling this story because it’s sort of like telling the story of how you found a suitcase full of small unmarked bills and went out and bought a car with it–it’s amusing, but it’s also such bizarre and undeserved good fortune that anybody in the audience is more than welcome to hate me for it, and I will understand and sympathize and add that I probably deserve it.

It is, however, rather typical of how my life goes, particularly since the dominant note in the whole thing is my profound ignorance of what was going on.

Way back in 2006 or so, Sofawolf Press was publishing Digger collections, and I was paying the rent as an illustrator. They were also working on publishing Black Dogs, but–I want to stress this–I had no plans of being a writer. I was an artist. I had done a little writing in my youth–didn’t we all?–and I had written my Obligatory Fantasy Novel back then, but I was not a writer. I had done nothing to seek publication from anybody but Sofawolf, who I’d known from doing cover art and generally being buddies. I did not know anything about mainstream publication. I had heard of literary agents in much the same way I had heard of garials and king-of-herring–I knew they existed, but I didn’t know anything much about them.

I knew writers. My buddy Deb, aka Sabrina Jeffries, was a writer. I knew a couple more people who wanted to be writers. It seemed like a nice job, but, y’know, I could sort of draw and this comic thing was kinda workin’ for me, and I was very clear on what writers did, which was write a lot, which I did not do.

One day Deb goes to a romance writer’s convention, where at a high-powered dinner of authors and agents, she tells an amusing anecdote about her Wacky Artist Friend.

She is sitting next to a very nice woman* named Helen, who, after the laughter dies down, says something in passing like “Artist, eh? Does she do graphic novels? That’s what everybody’s asking me for right now…”

Deb wracks her brain, remembers something about a wombat, and says “I think so. I’ll send you a link to her website when I get home…”

A couple of weeks go by, and Deb calls me up as I am in the middle of packing the house to move and says “Ursula, do you want a literary agent?”

I said–and I know I said this, because Deb has never once let me forget it–“Huh. Sure. What the hell.”

Deb facepalmed on the other end of the line and said “Ursula, when somebody offers to get you an agent, you do not say “Sure, what the hell.” You say “Wow, Deb, that would be amazing! Thank you so much!”

I repeated this dutifully, and then asked “What do I do with an agent?”

“We’ll worry about that later,” said Deb. “You do that webcomic, right? Have you won any awards?”

It had. I named them.

“Anything else?”

I wracked my brain and said “Uh…it was mentioned in the New York Times?”

There was the sound of another facepalm. “The New York–you never told me–that’s huge!”

“So I’m told,” I said, another line which Deb (who tells this story given any shred of opportunity, and has much better delivery) has never, ever let me forget. (Look, I was trying to pack at the time!)

“I’ll put all this in the e-mail,” she said, and hung up.

I thought “Huh,” and went back to work and thought no more about it, because what was I going to do with a literary agent? What did they do, anyway? Also, as I said, I was packing, and you have to wrap each of the plates in newspaper, and you KNOW what that’s like…

A few weeks slid by, we moved into the new house, we did a lot of re-painting and one day I got an e-mail from Helen saying “I have been to your website, I love your art, the little descriptions are so zany, can I call you, do you have an agent?”

I sent back a polite e-mail saying “I’ve never even spoken to an agent, but here’s my number.”

About thirty seconds later, the phone rang, and when I picked it up, she said “You are now speaking to an agent.”

“I will update my resume!” I said brightly.

There was a brief pause while she down-shifted her expectations of my intelligence.

Then she explained that she really really liked the art, she particularly liked the weird little stories, they were vastly entertaining and quirky, and had I written anything longer and could I send her samples?

So we went back and forth for a bit, and I sent her Digger and I think Irrational Fears. She found them interesting. She would call while flipping through my gallery and throw out random questions involving what we could do with this or that idea in the way of turning it into a book of some sort.

This was all very flattering, and it was an exciting couple of conversations, but I had no real idea what to make of it.

She was particularly interested, however, in the painting I did ages ago of Nurk the shrew, though, and I’d said I was going to write a children’s book about it someday–had I?

Well, no.

Could I?

“Sure!” I said, with the optimism of the completely ignorant. I still had no idea what you DID with an agent, but this woman seemed extremely excited and she had called THREE TIMES and had a very forceful personality and was also extremely complimentary and I hated to disappoint her, since apparently there was a chance she could be my agent, and I had picked up from Deb that this was probably a good thing even though I still wasn’t real clear on what they did.

“How soon can you have it?” she asked.

I panicked. Um. What was a good time frame? How long did it take to write a book? Oh god, what if I asked for too long and she got bored or got hit by a truck or I proved that I was some kind of irrational prima donna with no work ethic?

“Can I have six weeks?” I asked finally.

There was an unidentifiable noise from the other end of the phone, and she said, very generously, “Take eight.”

I wrote it in six weeks, and then spent the next week having neurotic fits about it, and then finally sent it out at seven weeks, in case she wanted to make any revisions, because that’s what you do in the illustration biz, which I was used to–optimally you send it in before the actual deadline so that the revisions also come in under deadline. (This was really not that super-human a feat–Nurk is a VERY short book. I wouldn’t try to do a regular novel in that time frame. Probably. Well, if Helen asked, I might try.)

Then I fretted for about two days, and she called say that it was great and she was very happy with it and would send it out and I plucked up my courage and asked “Does this mean you’re my agent now?”

There was a splutter on the other end of the line and she said “Yes! Of course I’m–WHY? Did another agent contact you?” (I think that’s the tone she uses on recalcitrant editors. It is alarming.)

“No–no, I’m just–I wasn’t sure…I mean…is this how it works?”

There was another pause while Helen again down-shifted her notion of my intelligence. “Yes,” she said. “I am your agent. If anybody asks if you have representation, you send them to me.  I can write up a contract if you want, although generally I don’t, since we both know it.”

“Cool!” I said.

…and that is how I got an agent, without having actually written a book, based on Deb’s anecdote, weird little blurbs at the bottoms of my art and a couple of samples of Digger, and despite my own absolute and total ignorance of what they did, what they were for, and why I wanted one.

Helen has been my agent for four years now, has sold nine books for me, flew me out to California for the Eisners, and has generally been very kind about my continued abysmal ignorance of normal author-agent behavior, and has not taken more than minimal advantage of my frequently unrealistic work ethic, although I hear that she once told an editor “You don’t understand! If you tell her to write a book, she goes home and writes it!” which apparently is not how it normally works, although I’m still not clear on alternatives, but apparently it surprised the editor too, so god knows how other authors do it.  (If you can do this, though, it’s a good thing! I think! I have no idea!)

I eventually went on-line to research how you get an agent and that’s when I learned that this is absolutely not how you get an agent, and then I started to feel guilty, like I’d jumped the line, but about that point she sold Nurk and then I was too busy revising and getting divorced and moving all over hell to worry about it again for awhile, and Deb made a lot of soothing noises, and has also been very helpful in unraveling the vast mysteries of publishing. And also other friends of mine got agents by conventional means, so, y’know. It’s possible.

I still feel a little guilty, now that I try to tell the story, because this is totally NOT how you get an agent. (It’s a lot easier when I’m telling this story in front of a live audience–it comes up a lot in Q&A, and my delivery is better and I can do funny voices and I know people are laughing at it because I can HEAR them, so I don’t feel like one of literacy’s greatest monsters.) But that’s how I did. I am aware that it was an absurdly unlikely stroke of luck. And now that I have one, I am very glad I do, because she has totally and utterly changed my life, which I tell her now and again, and if you can get an agent by whatever method, they are absolutely worth it.

And now I guess I’m a writer.

So, y’know.

*This is true for the value of “nice” that defines agents, which means that in the line of duty she is ruthless, savage, and has the tenacity of a terrier, but is generally quite a decent human being.

Odds ‘n Ends…

If you are an unpublished author and wish to read articles about how you actually get published,  this is a very good post.

I am not good at writing posts like that, because my success was a deeply bizarre series of events that could not be duplicated on demand, so this is a much better post, and the only thing I could add is A) get an agent, get an agent, for the love of god get an agent, and B) don’t ask published writers with agents you know if they will introduce you to theirs, as this is generally a social faux pas unless you are best and dearest friends and have, on at least one occasion, saved them from being eaten by weasels. As with many things, they are allowed to offer–and if they offer, leap on it!–but you probably should not ask, and if you DO ask, be willing to take “Um. I don’t think she’s taking submissions right now” for an answer and do not keep digging. Your friend is a writer, not an agent herself. If she wanted to be an agent and send people’s work to other people while feigning enthusiasm, she would have gone into that line of work in the first place.  (As you may guess from this, I had a few people who I knew vaguely in passing suddenly become very interested in bein’ buddies the minute I got an agent and a book deal and made no attempt to disguise the reasons.  It was tiresome, and I still feel awkwardly about the whole thing years later.)

Also, and totally unrelated, I had a fan recognize me in the grocery store yesterday! It was awesome. I have never been recognized at random before–I mean, one time when I handed over my credit card, and she actually read the name, but never just cold before–and I was thrilled. I hope the fact that I was caught largely flat-footed and probably babbled like an idiot or leaving Awkward Hanging Pauses did not make her feel too awkward. (Should you randomly recognize me in a grocery store, feel free to say hi! You will feed my ego for a month! I’m just, err, kind of a dweeb, so…y’know.)

…I just hope that she didn’t see the bit where I was surreptitiously fondling toilet paper to see if the stuff made from sugar cane fiber was going to be as much like wiping with burlap as I thought it would be.  That was perhaps not dignified.

Long Day

It has been a long day.

Kevin’s kids are generally well-behaved,* but they seem have about one day a week when they descend into howling barbarism–if we’re lucky, that’s a weekday, so there’s only a few hours before they can be summarily banished to bed, but today it fell on Saturday, which means that we have had a constant recitation of the Greatest Hits of Parenting, which include such perennial favorites as “Furniture Is Not For Jumping,” “If You Have All That Energy I Will Find Something For You To Do,” “Do You Call That Clean?”, “When I Was Your Age…” “Oh For The Love Of God Do I Have To Stand Over You While You Do It, Because I Will,” “Furniture Is Not For Jumping (Refrain)”  “Why Is There Screaming?” “We Do Not Eat Our Food Like Viking Berserkers” and of course “If You Two Do Not Settle Down Right This Minute You Will Spend The Rest Of The Day Sitting On Your Bed Quietly In The Dark.”  Kevin performs most of these, but I join in on the choruses and have learned most of the words to the one about furniture.

Then of course the adults gather in the master bedroom and engage in a few spoken word hits, such as “I Hear New Zealand Is Looking For Sys Admins” and “If We Sold Them For Their Organs, Would We Have To Share The Money With Their Mother?” plus bonus track “Dude, You Have Broken My Cat, He Was Not Like This Before You Got Him Hooked On The Laser Pointer.”

Despite this, some things got accomplished. I could probably even remember them if I put my mind to it.

Kevin did make a fabulous dinner, having seen a show on the legendary Minneapolis Jucy Lucy  (you split the burger in half, fill it with cheese, rejoin, and cook) which I remember from various dive bars back in the day. Of course, partway through preparation, he decided to put his ice-cold hands on me, because I am warm, which made me scream my usual muppet-in-a-blender scream, which made the beagle, who had been quietly eating, think that His Person was under attack. He began baying hysterically (apparently this provides some defensive bonuses, I don’t know) but he had a mouthful of food, so he inhaled kibble, and spent the next five minutes hacking and retching around the kitchen, adding significantly to the festivities.

So it was a long day, and not over yet. I am still anticipating a few repeats, probably including “No, You Did Not Take A Shower, I Was Right Here And Furthermore You Are Not Even Damp” “Well, Go Look For It, Don’t Stand There Staring At ME, I Don’t Have It” and perhaps “Get Out Of The Litterbox, You Disgusting Dog” which has a different target audience.

Ten more years until the youngest is eighteen. And then I may never wear pants in the house again.

*For boys in that age range, an important qualifier.

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch…

"Inu Red" 5 x 5

NaNoFiMo proceeds apace, although I have actually spent more time working on the next Dragonbreath than on the stuff I was meaning to finish.  Still, Campbreath does have to get done by January 3rd, and if I end the month with that manuscript written and only one of my other three goals finished, I’m not gonna cry too bitterly.  And I’ve gotten another 2K or so dropped on the Thing With The Goblins. (Hardly anything on the Thing With The Birds, alas.) But the month is still young!

Although it seems to be screaming by at a truly shocking rate. Dude. Mind you, this whole year has been stupidly rapid, and I have a glum feeling that this is just the pace of my life now and days will not slow down at all and I will soon be in a nursing home going “Wait! Wait! Wasn’t it just June 2014 just a minute ago?”

Prior to that, however, have some quick art that was laying around and didn’t get scanned and didn’t get scanned and HOW IS IT NOVEMBER ALREADY!?


One nice thing about it being November is that the weather has finally decided that it is fall, which means I get to break out some of my fingerless gloves and wear scarves, which I delight in, as this means I have two more sources of completely inappropriate unmatched color! So when I write in the coffee shops now, between the wild socks and the dead-muppet scarf and the fingerless gloves and the patchwork jacket, I probably look a bit like a colorblind magpie.

Which is fine. I am an artist. I get to be eccentric, even if I don’t have a lot of money. I save looking classy for book signings and gallery openings. Nobody knows who I am at the coffee shop.

One less than nice thing about the weather is that this is the season of Really Dry Skin, so I just broke into my very last jar of Villainess “Smashing” body creme and slathered down.  I smell a bit like a Red Hot.

"Owlet" 3 x 5

Anyway, the originals of these are for sale cheap on the Originals for Sale page–they’re too small to do as prints, I fear, but they’re quick little sillinesses anyway.

The Cow in the Apartment and the Ghost of Steampunk Future

So in the last week or two, there were a fair number of posts ’round the blogosphere that could be pretty much boiled down to “I am bloody well sick of steampunk” and “Steampunk is awesome, don’t be a hater.” (I am not linking to these because some of the parties have since recanted, extended olive branches, etc, and while I am happy to beat a dead horse on MY blog, it is bad form to drag those lamentable equines to other people’s parties.)

I am late to the party, as usual. For awhile, this was because I didn’t have much of an opinion–I think very reasonable people can quite reasonably be sick of steampunk by this point, I myself am very very sick of zombies and vampires and the revelation that apparently zombie steampunk is the Next Big Thing made me do a Digger-style facepalm. Kevin is sick of steampunk, and mutters darkly about dieselpunk being far niftier, and I respect this position. But I myself am not sick of steampunk. I still think many of the visuals are fantastic, I think the costumes are neat, and I am not a costume snob and thus do not get terribly bothered by the stylistic same-ness that troubles some of the genre, and when somebody rants about just slapping a gear on anything to make it steampunk, I smile and nod and mentally plan out my next garden project in my head. It is a matter of unconcern to me. Steampunk has twenty years of cloning to do before it achieves the stylistic uniformity of Ren Faire Wenchdom, so far as I’m concerned, but that’s really neither here nor there.

I did finally discover that I had an opinion, though, about one specific part of the debate.

It was pointed out–and with justice–that the 19th century was a pretty awful place for a whole bunch of people.  This was when Dickens wrote. This was the rise of factories and industrial pollution, and there was an exaggeration of already horrible social class dichotomies and miserable rookeries and child labor and squalor of really epic proportions.  (One of the best books I’ve ever read about this was “The Ghost Map” by Stephen Johnson, which included descriptions of things like “By the way, they’re keeping cows in apartment buildings!” and so forth that were downright mindblowing. Also, cholera.)

Steampunk generally does not address this. Steampunk is very shiny and involves brass and usually wealthy people drinking tea and shooting airship pirates and smuggling things and (sigh) apparently killing zombies now. The horrors of gaslamp London are more likely to be Cthulhu-esque, the nod to poverty is probably a Lovable Urchin or perhaps someone who speaks briefly but bitterly about growing up in squalor, but has nevertheless taught himself to move in polite society and which fork one uses to eat pickled dormouse brains.

So then the argument goes something like “What the hell, what is wrong with you people, the past was a bloody awful place, what did we fight the American revolution for anyway if you want to be a British aristocrat, and if you MUST deal with the 19th century, why doesn’t somebody write the great Dickensian steampunk work that deals with the horror and the rookeries and the cows being kept in apartment buildings!?!” (Also, cholera.)

I read this argument for more squalor on the airships and went “Oh, hmm, good point, there really isn’t any Dickensian steampunk dealing with the horrors of early industrialization and squalid class warfare, somebody should write that!”

Then I went away for a little while and did other things, and (FINE! I was running prints and leveling my Oddish* so I could take on the Pokemon League, are you HAPPY!?) and something in the back of my brain said “Somebody could write it, but you sure as hell wouldn’t read it if they did.”

Wise voice.  I applaud this sort of thing in theory, but I am hardly going to curl up with a copy of The Jungle for fun.  Feel free to dismiss me as shallow–it’s fine. I’ve made peace with that. And it’s not even just that I’m shallow, but when I ran down the number of good readable fantasies that I have enjoyed that handled squalor and the crisis of class dichotomies well–handled it as a major, serious part of the book, the driving force, not a footnote in somebody’s background–and I came up with Perdido Street Station and Paula Volsky’s Illusion.

They’re both great books, and you should read them. But given the sheer quantity of fantasy I’ve read over the years, the fact that those were the ONLY two I could think of is kinda telling. Pratchett could do it well, and occasionally does, but it’s Pratchett, and that’s another standard entirely. I’d give Tepper an outside shot, but then we’d have to have the big revelation halfway through where it turns out the Artful Dodger is actually an alien and will shortly be devouring Oliver Twist preparatory for his metamorphosis. (Hmm, actually I’d probably read THAT.)

But anyway, I couldn’t write it. Give me a cow in an apartment building and the cow and I will sit and stare at each other for awhile and eventually I will excuse myself and leave, feeling vaguely embarrassed and concerned for the cow, not more cognizant of the general brokenness of a system that requires farm animals being kept in apartment buildings so that people can eat.  If the Ghost of Steampunk Future came down and told me that Tiny Tim would die if I did not write the Great Dickensian Steampunk Novel, I would begin making plans for the Timothy Cratchit Memorial Foundation, because it ain’t gonna happen. That is not the sort of story I tell. I am not a Big Picture writer. I write about individual hedgehogs or dog-soldiers or iguanas with glasses.

There are authors who can mark each sparrow’s fall. I’m the kind who names the sparrow Bob and talks about what he had for breakfast.

There are better and different authors than me who could do it, and maybe do it well. But that’s not an easy thing to write. Go too far over and you get preachy and unrelentingly grim, go too far the other way and you get flippant, and I can hardly judge anybody who doesn’t want to write the horrible squalid book about labor organization in the rookeries because I couldn’t write it and I probably wouldn’t read it and I can’t think of many authors who could make something out of it that would grip me enough to overcome that. (Largely the same authors who could write a zombie novel I’d read, actually–the short list of people from whom I will read ANYTHING.)  I’m not saying that all fantasy is escapism, because that does fantasy a horrible disservice, but I will say that judging a genre as young as steampunk for not having produced such a book yet is pretty unkind when there’s a definite dearth of apartment cows in fantasy as a genre, and fantasy’s been around since the days of dreadful pulp.  (Can’t remember that many in SF, either, although I’ll give military SF the benefit of the doubt and say that undoubtedly there is scads of well-written Dickensian labor organization on alien worlds and I am merely missing it.)

It occurred to me somewhat later than anybody getting het up about steampunk’s unrealistic portrayal of the 19th century probably doesn’t read a lot of Regency romance either, ‘cos if you’re miffed that the airship isn’t dirty enough, boy howdy, you don’t even want to look at Georgette Heyer.

And that led me to thinking that if I ever do write a great steampunk novel, I’m gonna have a heroine who takes snuff. Snuff is underutilized.

And that was about as far as I got before I ran out of printer toner and had to get back to work.

*He’s a Gloom now! I call him Odd-Bob.

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