Belvedere – My Illustrated Children’s Book

A month ago I was rambling and raving about how much hard work it was to plot, illustrate, write and publish my children’s book for uni. Back then I wondered how I would ever get it finished in time, and I was convinced I’d either end up submitting something rushed and dodgy just to avoid a late penalty, or I’d still be working on it a month after the deadline because my inner perfectionist couldn’t leave well-enough alone (I’ve been guilty of both of these extremes in the past). As it turned out, I was given an extension because of serious illness (which may seem like a big help, but painting and drawing when you constantly feel like you want to pass out or be sick is no fun no matter how much time you’ve been given to do it), so I was still working on it up until last week.

I am happy to say that, last Thursday night, I finally finished and uploaded my book! Bask in its cute, dragon-y glory:

Blurb from back cover: Belvedere isn’t like the other dragons. After being shunned by his own kind, he leaves the forest and goes on a journey to find new places and meet new friends. In doing so, he discovers that being different isn’t always a bad thing.

I am really quite proud of what I have created. And even though while I was doing it, I was constantly whining about how time-consuming and difficult it was, I really enjoyed the process of painting the backgrounds and creating the environments out of various cut-up materials. I loved drawing the characters and using scanned and digital textures to bring them and their story to life. In a fit of exhaustion after uploading my book for print, I declared that I would never again commit myself to such a feat as creating an illustrated children’s book from scratch… But one day, just maybe, I will 🙂 The feeling of actually completing a creative work of this scale (this is from someone who has at least five unfinished novels languishing on her hard drive) is like winning the lotto, and it’s motivated me to try harder to complete one of my larger writing projects.

Belvedere is available for a 15-page preview (or purchase in hardcover, paperback or eBook format) here.

UPDATE 8th Nov: My hardcover copy arrived in the mail today! Yay! It looks even better than I thought it would:

Rex may not be excited about it, but I certainly am 😀

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Posted in Academic, Children's, Fiction, Graphics, Illustration, Publishing, Writing | 4 Comments

Writing a Children’s Book is Easy…

At least that’s what I told myself at the start of the semester, when I chose to do Designing and Producing Illustrated Children’s Books as my non-IT elective for my post-graduate studies. I’ve always been a creative soul, writing and drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil without thinking it was something to chew on. I have two novels at 25,000 words. I’ve churned out 2,000, 3,000 and 6,000 word papers for uni. Writing a 32-page illustrated children’s book should be a walk in the park, right? … Right? Yeah… no.

Coming up with the idea was one of the hardest parts. I think I went through about 6 different ideas (some of them more than once), before settling on my final concept (it contains dragons; are you surprised?).

It’s usually recommended that an illustrated children’s book contains 150-300 words. My first draft of the text came in at more than 600. The freedom of writing descriptive novels and the necessity of padding out academic papers with pointless waffle appeared to have broken my ability to write concisely. After much text-wrangling and hair-pulling I managed to get it down to about 200 words, and then started trying to work out which words would appear on which page, and what images should accompany them.

While writing the story, I also started playing with different background styles. I quickly settled on doing simplistic background with acrylic, since they were bright and bold and could be reused in several scenes (also experimented with watercolour, but it wasn’t quite vivid enough, and the acrylic gave me more control). The fact that they were simple meant it was fairly easy to redo them after many of them – along with some character sketches – were destroyed in a freak red lemonade accident (don’t ask). I’ve made some trees out of random bits of cardboard/felt/tissue paper, and I also created some nice fire and bubble effects by scanning bits of painted gossamer ribbon and vandalising them in Photoshop.

The character designs proved to be much more of a challenge. Since the originals (which were ruined) were more detailed, they had taken much longer to do; there was no way I’d have time to redraw all of them. To adapt, I had to change to a more simplistic illustrated style (the characters’ features are almost manga-ish), but I’ve still been able to have fun with the colouring, scanning in different materials or creating textures in Photoshop and using them to bring the characters to life (though there are some bits I’ve just coloured in with the good old paintbrush tool because I’m getting to the stage where I care more about getting it done quickly than getting it done to a high quality).

At this stage I’m still madly trying to get all my dragons drawn before tomorrow, when I’ll draw the children. Once that’s done I’ll more or less have everything I need to start putting together the final book layout with all the text and pictures. I have to send it to the printer by the middle of next week, so I’m on a pretty tight schedule. I also have to find time to keep working on my fantasy eBook prototype for my thesis, as well as keeping up with other assignment and tutoring commitments. No idea how successful I’ll be, though, since I seem to have come down with some sort of nasty virus and it keeps getting worse 😦 I’ll try to post an online version of the book once it’s completed for those who are interested.

Anyway, fortified by chocolate and energy drinks, and I shall continue to scribble away through the day and night, nursing the somewhat vain hope that I might actually complete this thing before the deadline (and that afterwards I can descend into the sweet, sweet oblivion of sleep).

I just hope I don’t end up like Bernard and Manny.

Posted in Academic, Children's, Fiction, Graphics, Illustration, IT/Multimedia, Publishing, Writing | 3 Comments

Magic Mushrooms

I first came up with this recipe more than a year ago, while foraging for something, anything to eat because there was no quick and easy food in the house and I was too busy (or lazy) to walk up the street to get something. After finding these random ingredients in the fridge, I decided I’d experiment, and it was one of the few times something I’ve cooked (other than instant meals that you just stick in the microwave) actually turned out really well. When it comes to kitchen wizardry, I tend to take after my dad; for every nice meal we produce, there are tens to hundreds that aren’t even fit to feed the dog (and Rex will eat anything, so that’s saying something). Since this has now become one of my favourite ‘study snacks’, I thought I’d share it with the Interwebz…

Ingredients (to serve one person):
6-8 small cup mushrooms
30-40 grams cracked pepper cheese
1/6th red capsicum (chopped into roughly 1cm long strips)
1 teaspoon butter
1 tube garlic paste

Preparation/Cooking Instructions:
1. Lay a sheet of aluminium foil on a baking tray and fold up the sides, forming a foil ‘box’.
2. Pull the stalks out of the mushrooms, leaving the cup intact. Put the mushrooms hollow-side up on the baking tray and lay the mushroom stalks around them.
3. Slice off small wedges of cracked pepper cheese and stuff one into each of the mushrooms. Then take pieces of capsicum and poke two or three into the cheese in each mushroom. Any spare capsicum can be sprinkled over the mushroom stalks.
4. Take teaspoon of butter and mix with garlic paste in a small microwave-safe cup (I used a ratio of about 2 parts butter, 1 part garlic paste, but you can use more or less, depending on how strong you want it). Microwave it for 30 seconds or so until melted, then drizzle it over the mushrooms and the stalks.
5. Preheat an oven to 180 degrees Celsius, and then bake the mushrooms for 15-18 minutes.
6. Serve on a small plate and eat immediately.

Alternative extras:
-Fill the mushroom cups with spinach before stuffing them with cheese
-Sprinkle chopped chives or parsley over the mushrooms before cooking
-Use different varieties of cheese
-Add slivers of tomato
-Decorate it with one of those little coloured toothpicks or mini-umbrellas.

It makes a nice savoury snack or side meal, and it could also be ideal for a party/special occasion platter. Enjoy 🙂

Posted in Non-Fiction, Recipes, Writing | Leave a comment

Cogs of War – Interactive Steampunk Story

A month or so ago, I made an interactive steampunk story for my Multimedia Narratives subject at uni, based on some steampunk character designs I’d created for an earlier assignment in the unit. For anyone who is interested/bored enough to play it, here it is:

Cogs of War – Interactive Steampunk Story

Though the characters and setting will be used for a steampunk novel trilogy I’ll be writing at some point, the story will be completely different (this one was quite sparse/cheesy for the sake of brevity; less text meant less programming :D). So far the story is only at a vague outline stage, and it will probably stay that way until I’ve finished my work in progress.

As stated in the credits in the game ending screens, the five main characters, story/text and interface graphics are my own work, while the minor characters, environments and props were sourced and arranged in Google SketchUp.

Posted in Academic, Cogs of War, Design, Fiction, Graphics, IT/Multimedia, Writing | 1 Comment

Ideal Features in a Fantasy eBook

As much as I would love to keep mucking around with my writing and drawing until I go back to uni (middle of July), it will soon be time for me to start working on my fantasy eBook prototype for my thesis.

I want it to address some of the problems people commonly have with fantasy books. For example, some readers of large fantasy books complain that it is too difficult to keep track of different characters, especially if they have similar names (though this is probably more of an issue with the actual writing than with the format itself). Others find themselves lost in the fantasy world, unable to follow where the characters are travelling (some fantasy books provide maps, but it can be annoying to have to flip back and forth between the map and your current chapter, so many readers don’t bother and choose to simply “go along” with it). There are also those who have trouble imagining what the places and characters actually look like (again, this is sometimes more of an issue with the writing), and wish for at least some visual representation of the world they are exploring. Since eBooks have the capacity for interaction, it should be easy enough to come up with features to reduce or remove these problems. Some features I’ve already come up with include:

  • Pop-up glossary.
  • Ability to click and hold a character name for more information, eg. click for name, pronounciation and picture, hold for brief description.
  • Ability to click and hold a place name for a pop-up map, eg. click for basic map showing borders, towns and landmarks, hold for more detailed view of terrain.

I’m aiming to have it ready for user testing by week 1 or 2 of second semester, so I’ll be spending the last three weeks of my mid-year break working on it. I suppose there are heaps of awesome features I could potentially include in my prototype – and would, if I had more time – but I’d rather it have a few well-implemented features than a bunch of features that are a bit buggy or don’t really add that much to the reading experience.

Anyway, now I shall throw it open to anyone who happens to read this blog. What problems do you have when reading printed fantasy books, if any? Are there any features you would like to see in a fantasy eBook that you think would make reading it easier or more enjoyable?

Posted in Academic, Fiction, IT/Multimedia, Writing | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

On Pantsing and Plotting

I should be writing my conference paper right now, but since I’m sick of looking at it – and since I’ve already eaten WAY too much of the chocolate I scored for my birthday – I thought I’d procrastinate with a blog post instead. Picking a topic at random from my stuff-to-blog-about-one-day list, I ended up with… *drumroll* Pantsers versus Plotters!

Most writers probably know what these things mean, but for anyone who doesn’t, “pantsing” refers to writing a story off the top of your head, with no idea where it will end up, while “plotting” refers to planning out the whole story before you start writing it; perhaps with detailed character descriptions or an outline of what will happen over the course of the book.

Mentioning the plotters versus pantsers debate is often a good way to stir up writers. The pantsers feel that having an outline stifles their creativity and that knowing where the story will go takes all the fun out of writing it. Plotters, on the other hand, tend to flounder if they don’t have a plan to fall back on when they get stuck, and prefer to have more control over how the story plays out.

I’ve discovered that I’m a plotter. The first serious writing project I worked on was Exile, a high fantasy trilogy. I had the idea for the main character one day and  started writing the first book, making it up as I went along. While I did my writing diploma, I bumbled my way through the story, writing the first six chapters in roughly chronological order. Once I hit the start of chapter seven, I realised that I didn’t know where the main character would go next… And then I got stuck. I made fairly weak attempts at planning her next move, and orchestrated increasingly far-fetched scenarios to steer the story on, and then I started wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. At that point, the story more or less died; discouraged by what I saw as an epic failure, I didn’t write at all for about a year.

One day I had the idea for a short dark fantasy story after stumbling across some random song. Once I had written it, I realised that it had the potential to be so much more. But this time, instead of just diving straight into writing, I began to write an outline for the novella that would eventually become my current work in progress; Dark and Silent Waters. Sure, the outline has since been tweaked to within an inch of its life, but knowing roughly where I wanted the story to go, how the characters would develop and the atmosphere and themes that would run through the story have helped me to stay focused on writing it. With an outline, the goal of completing a first draft seems more manageable. I’ve always had the outline to act as scaffolding and give me ideas for what I can do next when I hit a wall. And, if I couldn’t write the next chronological chapter, I was able to jump ahead and write a different chapter; I figured that it didn’t matter where the words went, as long as I was putting them down. I know some writers can and prefer to write in a linear fashion, but I just can’t work like that; I tend to bounce around within the story like a demented yo-yo on a sugar-high.

Right now I have my prologue, epilogue and a few random chapters in between completed. My word count is at just over 20,000 words out of an estimated 80,000. I’ve also recently started working on an outline for my Exile trilogy, in the hopes that I’ll be able to go back to it once I’ve finished my novella and actually make some progress with it.

What about other writers out there? Are you pantsers or plotters or somewhere in between?

Posted in DASW, Exile, Fiction, Writing | 5 Comments

The Snobbery of Literary Fiction Over Genre Fiction

This afternoon, Australian speculative fiction writer Alan Baxter started up a Twitter discussion (using the #ewf11 hashtag) on literary fiction, or more specifically, how the writing/publishing community seems to view it as a “higher” form of writing than genre fiction, and whether this is a valid point of view. Since this is a topic that has interested me for a long time – and because I was looking for a way to avoid working on my conference paper – I was eager to join the fray.

As a die-hard fantasy reader and writer, it’s probably easy to guess which side of the fence I’m on for this argument. Ever since I began writing seriously, I’ve noticed that a lot of people look on genre fiction – particularly fantasy, science fiction and horror – as low-brow entertainment, and therefore dismiss it as having no literary merit. One of the main examples of this was a teacher I had in TAFE while doing my writing and editing diploma; he hated fantasy as he felt that it was an excuse for bad writing. However, as I pointed out in the Twitter discussion, bad writing exists in all genres, not just fantasy.

Another point raised in the discussion was the existence of morals or messages about the meaning of life in literary fiction somehow making it more valid than other forms of writing. As many people said on Twitter, genre fiction is just as capable of giving readers something important and meaningful to take away from the story. And – as I and other Twitter users noted – genre fiction can deliver these things in a way that is more interesting; sure, I like stories about character development and the human condition, but I know that I’m going to enjoy it more if the story also involves dragons, magic or airships and so on. It’s all very well for a story to have a message, but if it is dull, no one is going to read it. Twitterers provided examples such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; though both fantasy authors, their work blurs the boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction. In a way, it should be entirely possible for some genre books to be considered literary fiction, but because of the “snobbery” of literary fiction, genre fiction is excluded from its ranks.

There is also the issue of reading for enlightenment versus reading for entertainment. Sometimes readers don’t want to be bombarded with deep and meaningful preaching on what it is to be human. Sometimes we just want to read something fun and exciting, or frightening and disturbing.

A lot of good arguments were brought up in the Twitter discussion, but since I’ve already avoided my homework for long enough, this will be the last I mention in this post. A common sentiment expressed in the discussion was that story is just as important as writing. Well-crafted prose is all well and good, but the plot and characters and events in the story can make or break the writing, and vice versa. If the writing is good but the story it tells is boring or disorganised, many readers will abandon the book. Likewise, if the story is well-plotted and exciting but the writing is sloppy and badly executed, we are not likely to read beyond the first few pages. Personally I tend to favour story over writing, but both of these elements still need to be good for me to finish the book.

Anyway, I should probably get back to writing my conference paper (damn assignments cutting into my writerly ranting time). What are your thoughts? Were you also involved in the Twitter discussion? I’d be happy to see more opinions in the comments.

Posted in Fiction, Opinion, Publishing, Writing | 4 Comments