Monday, April 29, 2013

The First of Three: An Interview with Artist, Tom Vandenberg

Hello, folks! Mark Nelson, here. This month's guest post is from Tom Vandenberg. I met Tom through my sister who offered his name up when I expressed some misgivings about trying to find an artist to do the cover for The Poets of Pevana. Tom has now become an important element in the developing "look" for Hadley Rille Books. He has done the covers for my novels, and has expanded his portfolio quickly by working with fellow HRB authors. I love Tom's work. He brings fun, color, intelligence and great skill to the process. With King's Gambit set to release in May, I thought it would be timely to let him have this space, and give us a look at the author/artist interface.

Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Vandenberg.
Tom and Mark, sent to my cell phone just to taunt me. TLD
In the fall of 2011 my wife, kids and I travelled to our favorite little college town, Ellensburg, Washington to spend the weekend with our old and dear friends, the Sherrells.   Over wine and some tasty local brew, that first evening, I recall Lori telling me about her brother, Mark and his book, “The Poets of Pevana.”  She said, “Tom, you gotta’ read my brother’s story, it’s so good, and it’s so different from other stories because the main character, Devyn, is a poet…and, they battle it out through poetry and it is really cool . . . “  or something to that effect, anyway.  I was moved by Lori’s belief in her brother’s stories.  About a month later he gave me a call.

I had never worked in collaboration with an author before Mark Nelson, Author of “The Poets of Pevana” and the soon to be released follow up, “King’s Gambit.”  Most recently I had been making money as a chalkboard artist.  I had primarily focused my sights on producing logos, designs and illustrations for corporate spirits distributors, restaurants and nightclubs and worrying that my next paycheck was going to be on a “Net 30, 60 or 90.”  Ouch. 

When Mark first called I was pleasantly surprised.  This was new.  Different.  I welcomed the chance to use my drawing and painting skills. 
After the initial meeting between he, Eric Reynolds, of Hadley Rille Books and myself, Mark and I began emailing our ideas back and forth.  I started my first book cover research:  Architecture, landscape, people, clothing, weapons . . . and trees.  Lots of trees!    

This first image is of the ancient oak tree and the first of the pencils I did for the cover.  This tree really is the centerpiece of the cover illustration.  For further work I altered the image digitally and built the cover around it.
This next drawing is of Kembril, the first character Mark and I worked on together.  I read the scene many times to get the feel for Kembril.  After a few times through he started to remind me of a less crotchety version of my Grandpa Thompson, who also loved his drink, mixed with a battle scarred Leonardo Davinci.  This image was, I think, the third pencil in a series I used to create his likeness.  He was loads of fun to draw.

 An email from Mark 11/3/11
“This is awesome. Give him some dusty, raggy clothes, set the bole of the tree at his back and a root for the stump, and you are practically in my head.” 
It’s not an easy job creating the main character.  I’m sure Mark would agree.  Through many emails we hammered out the first of my digital drawings.  Welcome to the early stages of Devyn Ambrose.  After penciling him in I decided to scan his image and draw the rest using my new painting programs and Wacom pen tablet.  Yes!

Pencils of the oak tree were a good start, however, our next step was to set up the scene for the cover.  There were a number of different versions of the tree I created before the characters were put in place.  Here is one of those versions.  I still like this one because of the softness of the digital airbrush’ softness. 
Part 2: Creating the Villain
Creating a villain wasn’t the difficult part, however, where to put him was.  Front cover?  Back cover?  lots to think about.  I sent many images to Mark Nelson, Eric Reynolds . . . and Mark’s editor, Terri-Lynne DeFino, who later became a great friend when I finally got to meet her at Conquest 2012 (Conquest 44 is going to ROCK!).   

My email introduces a marked up image, trying to locate “Jaryd Corvale’s” spot on the cover.  I think this is a good example of how some artists collaborate through the web.

“Here is an improved version with run down streets, buildings, cart, people walking off in the distance, a rat, and . . . two potential places Jaryd could be lurking.  I like choice "A" best, because he is less conspicuous and I can have him leaning out the doorway in a shadow . . . or I could pop a window in that same building and have him peaking out from the shadows.  Point "B" is okay, but, it's too obvious IMO.  I could pop a doorway/window in just about anywhere.
Headed in the right direction?”
An email from Mark:
“I love the grimed up look. This is FANTASTIC. Terri likes A. I can see C. Imagine a book blurb on the left side either superimposed on the scene or in a text box. Creates some separation, which is cool. C allows the figure to be half on the spine but unencumbered by the blurb. Hmm.”

Jaryd didn’t end up in any of those proposed locations.  I created a new one by using the open space between two buildings.
I officially met Eric and Terri when I got the privilege to take part in last year’s Conquest 43 along with the rest of the Hadley Rille family.
Thanks for allowing me to post this blog.  And, thank you Terri for posting it up for me.

I look forward to taking part in “King’s Gambit” blog whenever that happens!  I have a TON of images showing the cover illustration process of this incredible novel. 



Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting Used to Criticism

Getting used to Criticism...

I was talking to a friend the other day, and he mentioned he had just finished a manuscript of a novel from an acquaintance that was outstanding but probably would never be published because the author could not muster the courage to face rejection or criticism. He told me he was surprised by her decision, but I wasn't.

I felt the same way at one time. A bad experience with a crooked agent ( I just got another restitution check for a whopping $1.76!) took my courage away. I paid for my lack of research and learned some valuable lessons about the industry. I did not "try again" until almost five years later, after two more drafted stories. The result was a better, more organized me as a submitter. I was ready for my form rejection letters I would keep in a file to prove to myself that at least I gave it a shot.

I understood the writer friend of my friend. I understand her fear even more, now, two books into this experience and contemplating a full re-write/revision of book three and plans for book four. The fear is still there, but it has morphed into a less daunting version. I have learned through my publishing experience that I am now part of a small but dedicated and skilled family of writers and thinkers; honest folk who care about story and good writing and do their utmost to nurture and encourage.

I have landed myself smack-dab in the middle of the critical world, and I am absolutely in love with the whole process. I find it both unnerving and affirming at the same time, and even as I write this I realize I am just repeating what others have already said much more eloquently. But that is the fantastic part about it all: it IS a universal truth for all of us and yet the nuances, the intrinsic identifiers are different for everyone. I think that is why I find words so attractive. We all use the same ones but with such variety and innovation! I grieve for the friend of my friend, who for fear dooms herself to always wondering.  There is a delicious kind of uncertainty about what the published author does, but what is certain is they confront their fear directly and advance bravely into the breach as though they were one of Henry's happy battle brothers.

I've begun interacting with writers this year as a published author, and during my first intense moments at Norwescon I found myself empathizing with the folks submitting their works for scrutiny. I have described that experience previous, but I return to it now for this post because I recall feeling a little sheepish picking apart their work. How was I any better or more qualified? What set me on the other side of the table besides a happy accident? I admired their courage in participating in the workshop. I found myself wanting to cheer them on even as comments from around the table became more critical and exposing. But they did it! They submitted and listened and learned! They taught me a valuable lesson in courage. And that lesson returned to me tenfold in the parking lot of a local golf course when my friend told me of his friend's fear and reluctance.

There are too many truths that fail still-born or subsumed through want of courage and conviction. This industry is HARD on people. It is both the great hope for truth and at the same time can be truths greatest enemy. The artistic expression is such a strange marketplace. The variables can get seedy, ego a little too needy, value a little too literal... What hope for ART then?

The key is criticism--both the giving and receiving. If I had not first offered up a story, then faced and then found a way to make my editor's heartfelt criticism work, then King's Gambit would never have achieved its final shape. The Poets of Pevana would have remained a hot little mess of a draft desparate for courage and nurturing, grafting and pruning...

A little success, a few kind words, a positive review from a stranger are all part of a magical spell we cast on ourselves when we do our homework and commit to criticism, when we trust to our stars and lick the stamp or push send on the file. I am glad I did. I hope that friend of my friend can find hers.

Happy reading, and writing!


Monday, April 15, 2013


A couple weeks back, the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour ran a story about Bringing Babies to the Classroom -- not to teach the babies how to read and write, but to teach grade school students, through their interaction with babies, to empathize with others. 

I found this a very interesting report -- partly because of the unique approach to the problem of teasing and bullying, but mostly because of the revelation that empathy is a skill like any other: although we are born with the ability to empathize, that tendency must be reinforced, practiced, and honed.  Otherwise it will be expressed poorly, if at all.

While watching the news report that evening, I had one of those light bulb moments, when it occurred to me that reading fiction might accomplish the same thing that bringing babies into the classroom does. 

After all, as a writer I have put myself in the head of characters from very different worlds -- and in so doing, have come to better understand (I think) alternative world views and psychological/emotional frameworks.

As a reader I have wandered across countries and through time, surviving the dustbowl as a migrant farm worker, laboring on the banana plantations of South America, witnessing a woman tortured and burned for witchcraft, solving murder mysteries in a medieval monastery, building cathedrals in Medieval England and Spain. . .

The first edition of One Hundred Years
of Solitude
The list goes on and on. 

Has all this reading honed my skills at empathy?

Or is my thirst for the experience of empathy one of the things that drives me to read?

Empathy, as defined by the ever-reliable Wikipedia, is the capacity to recognize emotions being experienced by another.  The concept was first elaborated by 19th century German philosophers. Although the idea of empathy has been around for a while, exactly how it works, and why, is not well understood.

Some evolutionary biologists consider the capacity for empathy a prerequisite for positive social interactions and altruistic behavior.

Most recently, empathy has become a central focus of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs in schools across the United States -- such as the one covered by MacNeil Lehrer -- that have significantly improved students' social and emotional competencies. 

It turns out I'm not the first person to suspect novels also help us learn empathy.  In fact, this idea had apparently gained wide acceptance until Susan Keen shook the foundations of the assumption with her 2007 book Empathy and the Novel

Keen did not go so far as to claim novels do not inspire empathy; she simply pointed out the uncomfortable truth that no studies had been done to test this idea, and therefore no data existed to support it. 

Belli's memoir opens with a riveting
scene in which we learn what it is like
to be a young Nicaraguan woman
learning how to fire an AK47.
Psychologists and social biologists have taken up the challenge set forth by Keen, and now studies are being published that indicate a link between novels and empathy. Even light weight, sheer-entertainment-style fantasy such as Harry Potter and the Twilight series appears to teach young readers something about how to relate to the Other. 

While this is all very compelling, there remains a lot of work to be done, both in terms of understanding where empathy comes from and why it is important for social creatures like us.

We can't really do a rigorous scientific study of the relationship between novels and empathy on Heroines of Fantasy.  But I thought it would be interesting to collect some anecdotal evidence from our readers and followers. 

So here are some questions I have for you:

What stories you have read (or written) that have helped  you empathize with the Other?

What do you think is the relationship between fiction, empathy, and positive social interaction? 

Two questions that give us a lot to chew on, I know.  But we've got a week to think and talk about it.  I'm looking forward to seeing your comments!

The caption for this photo, taken from The Guardian, reads
"in touch with their inner vampires".  Perhaps they are, but
does this make Meyer's fans better mortals as well?

posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dirty Little Secrets

I have a confession to make: I love skipping ahead to the ending.

When I voice this aloud to a group of readers and writers, they gasp! They sigh! They roll their eyes in despair. I’m not a reader, I’m a cheater. An “end-of-book-looker-atter,” as one of my best friends tells me. I am a pariah, to be scorned and shunned from the reading community.

Still, I can’t help myself. Sometimes I peek at the ending because I’m just not invested in the story, and I want to know how everything wraps up so I can decide if I want to keep reading or just shuck it and move on to the next book. Other times, I read ahead because the book is so good that I’m in a hurry to find out what happens. And when reading the epic fantasy tomes I so adore, I will not only read the end before its time, I will actually read the book out of order, following the storyline of one point of view character all the way through to the end before going back to pick up another point of view character and do the same. I read The Two Towers this way the first time. The party separated; I followed Sam and Frodo through to Gondor, then went back and picked up again at Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s cross-country marathon. I read the whole book, just not in the order Tolkien intended.

I think the differences of opinion about peeking at the ending of books are purely philosophical, and have a lot to do with the values and interests of the reader. For some, the end justifies the means. The reader pushes through to get to the end because finding out how everything wraps up and ties together (or not) is the reward. I am the opposite. The journey—getting to know what makes the characters tick, what drives them, the pitfalls and successes they find along the way—that’s the best part. The ending should come as a necessary and appropriate conclusion to that journey, a fitting and expected outcome based on all that came before. Thus, knowing the ending in advance sometimes makes that journey even more satisfying to read, as I can see the groundwork being laid, the plans in motion, and know that everything will come together in the end.

Yes, I am justifying my naughty reading behavior. However, in my defense, I actually do go back and reread the book after peeking at the ending, and sometimes I am even pleasantly surprised to discover that the end still manages to defy my expectations. The best example of this I can recall is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful novel 100 Years of Solitude. My AP English teacher during my senior year in high school told us all that this book had the best ending of any novel he’d ever read. Naturally, I flipped to the end and read the last few pages immediately—and was completely confused and uninspired. So it was with tremendous shock and surprise that I discovered, when I came to the ending in due course, that not only did everything make sense, the conclusion was masterfully written, with depth and emotion that sounded to my core. I will never forget that feeling, that realization that reading the words out of turn doesn’t necessarily give away all of the answers, that context is more important and more powerful than any string of words on a page.

I’ve never again been able to replicate that awe-inspiring response to the conclusion of a novel. Perhaps one of the reasons I still cheat and flip to the end is because I want to have that experience again. Regardless, one thing is for certain: I will never change my evil ways. I will peek, and peek, and peek again, because I just can’t help myself.

Your turn now: what’s your dirty little reading secret? Do you skim? Corner the pages? Skip the boring parts? Do you HAVE to finish a book, no matter how much you hate it, or do you throw the book against the wall out of frustration and move on? Tell all!

Kim Vandervort

Monday, April 1, 2013

Norwescon, Seattle

Mark's Musings on his first Norwescon...

I just arrived back from three days in Seattle. I found it somewhat ironic that the city enjoyed the three nicest days of the year during a time when so many people spent all their waking hours indoors, breathing each other's exhaust and geeking out over fanboy minutia. The weather was truly amazing; the con, for me, was a mixed bag of engagement and intimidation.

I have to confess I was not as prepared as I needed to be to deal with the size of the whole affair, the people crush, and the direction some of the panels I did or attended took. Maybe I'm wrong, but I experienced a little 'on the outside looking in' thing going on that started on Thursday and never really left me until my second glass of wine at the Baen party on Saturday night. By that time I'd had my fill of hits and misses. I stayed long enough to score a few books, shake a few hands listen to Gardner Dozios rumble through a couple of stories. In the end, the wine settled things out as a draw. I had a good time, but I didn't do anything brazenly noticable. At times for me the place exuded inhibitions and pretensions and I fell prey to a little doubt. I either needed more wine or some of my peeps--both would have been better. Tom Vandenberg, my cover artist and friend, and a guy fast becoming our go to inhouse guy, showed up Friday night and we had a good time taking in all the freakishness. This was a good first foray for both of us, and next year we both want to be more of a presence with books and art. The stuff that was there wasn't really all that impressive. Tom's covers would get a nice reaction.

Next year we are going to melt the place...

Some thoughts:

I finally learned the proper way to pronounce Shannara (Shan-ara) from the man himself. Terry Brooks gave us a nice hour about the history of his writing career. I've read his stuff. I still have my orginal copy of Sword, and I still the copy of Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy where he lambasts Brooks for such an overt lifting. Funny, didn't seem to hurt Terry's career. Some of the same sort of reaction has been leveled at Paolini with much the same results, at least initially. Meh.

Don't get me wrong. I loved listening to him. He was engaging, generous, funny, and in total control of the moment from the start. Thirty plus years and 20 million sales can do a lot for a man's confidence! While I don't consider myself a huge fan anymore, it was still a lot of fun to shake his hand and observe him at work. Nice human.

I also got a chance to listen to Catharine Asaro's Q&A. And again the control and confidence impressed me. And yet she took great care to be ingratiating and genuine.

My panels somewhat disappointed me because the first one caught me little off guard with the direction it took soon after we started. I assumed we were going to look at how fiction sometime falls prey to bigotry through ignorance, but it quickly swerved into an examination of cultural integrity and how some authors misuse those subtle cues and end up insulting certain groups. I blame myself here, not my panel members, for they did not know me and were women of ethnicity and quite passionate. The moments for twenty odd people were dominated by handful of folks--all of whom spoke from an social or cultural experience that your WASPy blogger could not share.

It's not that I disagreed with their sentiments. I got it and rallied not too lamely to add what I could. But in the end I kept coming back to the same thought: raise consciousness all you want to, but make sure you keep it in the proper context.  Yes, authors need to do their homework, but being PC forces the debate out of context. Read your Bradbury, please. For me, it all boiled down to a simple thought: if it's obviously troubling, it's probably just bad writing or intentional and it will sink under the weight of its own ignorance. And if it isn't intentional, then the writer is just being lazy, and he needs to read his Orwell or risk getting slapped and then ignored.  I felt like I let the topic down a little, but I would have liked to have kept it more literary rather than sociological. My apologies to anyone who was there and reads this and feels like I missed the point totally. Still something of a newbie here. Be nice.

The second panel was much more relaxed and fun, and I felt like I made the most of my moments. For some reason, folks decided to focus on poor Thomas Covenant and went on a collective rant that I think missed the point totally. I actually called a time out to offer some defense for the poor old leper. We were debating the difference between 'rogue' and 'anti-hero'. Quite a few folks wanted to dismiss him as nothing more than an a**hole because of the early rape scene. Now, it has been twenty years since I tried to gut through those first three Donaldson tomes (I never got through all of them. Too over-written for me), but I actually think that scene is huge because it was the spasmodic reaction to the sudden regenerational effect of the Land, and the depth of that violence sets the tone for his booklong denial. Sure, it gets trite real fast, but I think Donaldson intended to present someone diametrically opposed to Aragorn's epic goodness. This was the late 70's--the time of The Silmarillion and Bakshi's film, the advent of the rise of the genre and all those schlocky copies (see above). In any event it must be pretty obvious that this hour passed much more quickly than the first panel. Time really does fly when you are having fun.

The workshop panels were a mixture of intimidating and envigorating for me. I found myself in with some folks who were veterans of the activity and really knew the language. I found myself playing the role of the general encourager at times because some of the folks seemed to really pick over the material--almost as if they needed to assert their skill in some way. I got that sense all through the weekend: there were some who seemed to be trying too hard.  Now, having said that, the workshop moments were truly positive and helpful to the writers. I really liked some of the characters they presented. Most of my questions dealt with the worlds those characters inhabited. I didn't go into frantic detail about horsey stuff or armor stuff or whatever. As a result, I felt like some of my comments might not have jibed well with others, but that doesn't make them invalid. I still felt useful. A little...

Some people I met:

Tina Connolly, Ironskin (Tor), was an absolute gem of a woman, sharp, generous and highly skilled. Working with her on the workshop panel was great and talking with her at the Baen party really helped me get a grip on the totality of my experience.

Catharine Asaro is a multi-faceted, compelling personality. She held the room for an hour, and it was like we were at Panera having a bun and coffee. I listened to her warm-up stuff before her music thing. Ok.

Kate Marshall, works as an editor for a local online zine. Again, gracious, SMART and talented. We did a critque together and chatted at the party as well.

Gardner...I think I referred to him as an overweight Kembril in a facebook post. Sorry, sir! He ROCKED. The man can hold a room, an auditorium, a ballroom...awesome.

I listened to Cat Rambo and Carol Berg read. Very nice. I think my stuff is different. I chose not to read in the end. I have no excuse other than I just wasn't feeling it. I've been away from Poets now for awhile, and I don't think I was handling the idea of reading in such close quarters very well. The room was small and the first one in the hall where all the panels took place. Everytime I looked at possible passages, all I saw were flaws. Of course, that was fear talking. All of the writers I listened to had allies in the room. I felt pretty much alone at that point. I flinched and let it get to me. Plus, some of my earlier experiences had me a little sour on the whole drama, and I just wasn't ready. I missed my HRB family. That won't happen again. Next year I will know what to expect, and if the con lets me have another go I'll brazen it out.

The next generation of publishing panel dealt with small presses. Patrick Swenson and the rest of the panelist did a great job reaffirming the role of and need for such business models. Eric Reynolds is doing the right thing, and I believe it is going to pay off in the end. The industry is in peril of turning itself into a caricature of art. There is just too much sameness out there--a whole pack of dogs trying to chew on the same bone. It reminds me of the silliness of television news these days. Quick stories for ratings; quick sales for profit. Where quality falls in that scenario, and what it means to ART, leads me down a dark path I'd rather not walk...

So, in the end I would say my experience was a qualified success. The con is GREAT with something for everyone. It has a long history and supports local writers. I will be back.


ps: sorry about the shoddy editing here. I got in late! Happy reading! King's Gambit comes out in May! Conquest in KC with my HRB family!

pps, addendum...whatever...

I just wanted to add how impressed I was with the overall organization of the con. The staff at Norwescon were outstanding, considerate and continually demonstrated their devotion to our genre. There really was something for everyone. Tom met up with his KC Klingons, and I saw flags of many stripes flying proudly. Well done Norwescon family! Next year I hope to rise to the same level of professionalism and commitment.