Inspiration as it Comes


I’m going to start this post with a confession, and I hope that you don’t gasp in horror or faint or hiss at me like a feral cat. Because the latter is my typical reaction to things I dislike. ; )

Anyway, confession: My greatest source of inspiration these days is a webcomic.

I can just see the hordes of book-lovers who read this blog (all 20-or-so of them) knee-jerking so hard they tip their chairs backward. Though, maybe not all of you. Maybe some of you are like, “oh, yeah. I love webcomics, too.” (To which I say, let’s totally nerd out in the comments section!)

Here’s the background: I happen to be two things, mainly — a teacher, and very slow when it comes to lesson planning. This means that though I technically work part-time right now, I put in a lot more hours of work than I get paid for. And it’s mostly mental. Which, at the end of the day, leaves me not wanting to pick up a real book with hundreds of tiny words per page.

Instead, I go online, open a webcomic, and read less than 30 words against a background of pure artistic crack. After which I can stare at said background with sparkles around my eyes until my synapses stop firing. And it’s glorious.

How does that inspire me?

Admittedly, most don’t. There are a number of comics I really enjoy, with good storytelling and fun characters and nice artwork. And those are the ones I’d happily reread in their entirety, when I have enough free time.

And then there’s Stand Still. Stay Silent.

These are the imaginary people who have captured my heart and are slowly devouring my soul.

These are the imaginary people who have captured my heart and are slowly devouring my soul.

This is the webcomic that I found after waking up, insomniac, at 4 in the morning, then read straight through for five hours, then went back and started reading again that same day. Within a week I had combed through the archives three times, and read the artist’s previous completed webcomic.

I was completely captivated, and not just by the gorgeous artwork. The characters resonated with me in a way that book characters had failed to do for a long time. They got into my head. I started wondering about the parts of their lives not shown in the comic pages, about why they were on this crazy journey and how they had come to be who they were. I analyzed every trait and quirk. I thought, “This is what my characters are lacking — this appeal that goes beyond ‘likable’ to ‘needed as a real-life friend.'”

And the storytelling! I dove into the story like a cold spring, eyes open. Each little detail on the page, each little sideways glance of a character, the purpose behind the choice of each word — I wanted to understand it. I was, and am, obsessed with trying to understand.

When I first read The Hunger Games, and long ago Good Omens, I had one distinct thought: If I can manage to write something half this good, I’ll be happy.

SSSS has made me feel that way again. Right now I’m sitting at my desk, a hand-drawn map to one side, notebook to another, and a dozen slips of paper with major plot points on them spread out in front of me. My characters are slowly coming to life in my mind again — for now, still merely “likable,” but evolving quickly. Inspired by, but radically different from, the characters in SSSS.

Yes, writers need to read. And we need to be widely read. I for one will never say that just because the medium is different, you can’t take inspiration from a webcomic, or a movie, or an anime. You can learn characterization and storytelling from all three, sometimes even more-so than from a book. All that’s left to do after that is translate it all into words. And that’s the hard part.

But that’s what inspiration is for.

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Why I (try to) Write Diverse Characters


Let’s talk ethnicity. I am a couldn’t-be-much-whiter German-French-English-Irish-First Nation-American. The 3% of me that is First Nation (the Canadian term for Native American) is Cree, which is really interesting and probably the reason people occasionally ask me if I’m part Asian. But for all intents and purposes, I am white and I invariably check the little box that says “White Non-Hispanic.” I have lived the vast majority of my life in the U.S., experiencing white privilege even without being aware of it. I have never experienced, in this lifetime, what it’s like to be black, or Hispanic, or disabled, or a man, or anything other than white, female, and mostly poor.

The thing is, I have this character. She’s a lot like me, in that she’s bookish, dreams of traveling the world, and has fears that sometimes make it hard to live her life. She’s also rather different: an over-achiever, one hell of a flautist, and half black.

See how her skin color is so low on the list? See how I say it like it doesn’t matter, because skin color has so little bearing on who you are as a person?

“May,” someone will inexplicably say, “you’ve got it all wrong. It does matter. Many PoC’s belong to a culture completely different from yours; what right do you have to portray a culture that you’ve never been a part of?”

That someone would be right. As an outsider, it’s impossible for me to ever gain the same insight as someone who’s spent their life in that cultural environment.. On the other hand, not all PoC’s identify with all aspects of the cultures they come from. Some things are universal, like needing different methods and products to tame your hair. Other things, like dialect, religion, beliefs, come down to the individual.

As a white woman, can I write a black character speaking AAVE and not come across as racist/misappropriating? I don’t know, but it would be really hard. Does that automatically mean that I shouldn’t write a character with dark skin? I don’t think so.

Now my observant commenter says, “May, you can’t just sweep an entire lifestyle under the rug.”

Agreed. That’s where research and a little sensitivity come in handy.

“But you’re still not a PoC, so you can’t really portray what’s it’s like to be one realistically.”

It’s true, I will never really understand the day-to-day reality of having dark skin in modern America. I’ll never personally experience the fear of being a black male who’s just been stopped by the police and doesn’t know what’s about to go down. I’ll never know exactly how many looks I’d get as a Hispanic woman just trying to do the grocery shopping, or the sentiments behind them. I’ll never be that one Filipino kid in a class full of white kids who assume he’s Japanese (if they’re into anime) or Chinese (if they’re not).

I’ll tell you what I have been. I have been poor; dirt poor, in fact, like many PoC’s and disabled people are in a country that’s run by white, abled people. I have lived in the hood. I have, due to living in the hood and attending a public school, been the only white person in my class. I have been excluded because of the color of my skin and the way I speak. I have lived in Asia and traveled Asia and stood out and gotten looks ranging from curious to jealous to mistrustful. I have sat next to Japanese people on trains while they talked about my hair, my height, and my body while assuming I couldn’t understand a word — or not caring. I have been stopped on the street by Japanese police officers and asked if the bike I was riding was mine, and they didn’t believe me until they checked the registration number. I have nearly broken into tears because my South Korean high schoolers, who after all only learn these things from their parents, would venomously put down Japanese people and Southeast Asians and gay men but somehow never had anything to say about North Korea. I have been afraid to tell even my dearest friends that I am bi, because maybe they’ll say it goes against God or because maybe they’ll worry I’m attracted to them or because maybe they’ll try to convince me that I’m not.

I have felt like an outsider and a minority for most of my life. And yet I know that’s nothing compared to what PoC’s, disabled people, and many LGBTQ’s go through daily. And taking one look at the people who run my country, at the people who have the loudest voices here, I can see that there are too many who remain unaware of just how similar we all are.

That’s why I have a main character who’s smart, strong, and half black.

That’s why I have a main character who dedicated herself to cross country running after she moved to the U.S. as a nine-year-old with no English knowledge.

That’s why the latter’s boyfriend is a history nerd majoring in Museum Studies, and happens to be Asian.

And that’s why the main character of my newest project is a sweet, adventurous girl who happens to be deaf.

Because people are people, and that’s something that transcends the superficial.

Life without Words


I think anyone with a creative hobby can relate to this one.

When I finally made my years-long dream come true and moved to Japan, I was still living in the memory of what it had been like to study there. As a student, I’d had the perfect schedule: classes until early afternoon, with the rest of the day, weekends, and holidays free to go wherever I wanted. I had time to explore, time to practice yosakoi, and time to travel anywhere in the country. I’d heard that Japan was not such a great place to work as to be a student, but I thought I’d found a job with enough flexibility to get around that.

Let me first say that I loved my job. Many of my regular clients became my friends. I met all kinds of people and was able to grow a lot as both a teacher and a person. I could literally choose any schedule I wanted, submitting 200 lessons a month or zero lessons a month, closing any that didn’t book any time I wanted. On a day-to-day basis, it was perfect for me.

There was just one caveat: in order to meet the Japanese government’s requirements for visa renewal (as well as to earn enough money for food, rent, and student loan payments), I had to teach about 160 lessons a month. Not submit — teach. That meant that on slow days, I’d have to open extra lessons and hang around until the last minute to see if they’d book. Eventually this resulted in a schedule like this:

5:00-6:30 = wake up, catch the train, get to work
7:00-2:00 = teach (with a 45 minute break at 10, and sometimes I’d go home early)
3:00-5:00 = get home, eat lunner, do anything else that needed to be done that day, then head back to work
5:30-8:30 = teach again
9:00-9:30 = get home, pass out

I felt like I was always in work mode, even at home, because I couldn’t even take my suit off and be comfortable. So I was basically in a state of permanent (albeit low-level) stress. Which translated to “Novel writing? Okay, with effort… Blogging? Ugh, I’ll do it next week.” And social life? That’s funny.

I feel as though I came to understand quite intimately why so many of my working clients listed “hobbies” like listening to music, window shopping, and riding trains. I myself had to drop archery and karate, things I’d been wanting to try since high school, just months after picking them up. But nothing hurt more than losing my words.

One day I got home feeling exhausted and absolutely soulless, and realized I hadn’t written a word in weeks. Every project I’d been working on, every promise I’d made for this blog, had words just hanging in some void where, even if I could find them, I wouldn’t have the time or energy to write them down. I felt like a loser, and worse I felt lost. For me, setting the words in a physical form is only part of the process. Before I can even get to that point, I need the words in my head, and before the words are even formed, I need the images, the emotions, the raw experience that those words become an intermediary for. And I didn’t even have the time or peace of mind to indulge that.

Okay, I’m probably a bit too wordy at the moment, so here’s the point: it’s too easy to get caught up in Important Things and forget why you’re alive. Because yeah, money and rent and not starving are all necessities that should and (for most of us) probably do take priority over simple passions. But I could never see the point of a life consisting entirely of a “work eat sleep” pattern repeating into eternity.

We should work to live, not the other way around.

And it’s easy to say “I’ll do this” and never really act on it. However solemn your vow to yourself, it’s not good enough, and it never will be. That’s why today, I decided to skip over the “I will” and jump straight into the “I am.”

I am now wrapping up this horribly written blog post. 🙂

The First Uprising: Jostein and the Invisible Paperclip


Today the spotlight rests on the visual art and blog of my friend Jostein, of Invisible Paperclip.

Violin Girl - an experiment on watercolor paper, combining inked lines and coffee as a coloring medium

Violin Girl – an experiment on watercolor paper, combining inked lines and coffee as a coloring medium

Introduction

My initial impression of Jostein’s style was that it was so simple and neat, and yet very elegant at the same time. I also like that, while Japanese animation clearly has had some influence, it is also not the full extent of his style. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint any singular influence — the mark of an artist who has come into his own. I think this is part of the reason why his subject matter can be so versatile.

Mustache - an autobio comic about growing a mustache

Mustache – an autobio comic about growing a mustache

But it’s not just the subject matter. Another thing I find interesting about Jostein’s art is that he doesn’t pigeon-hole himself in terms of medium. Invisible Paperclip includes everything from cartoons and caricatures to web banners, watercolors to pixel animations, sketches to published work. There are traditional works, computer-assisted works, and one-hundred percent digitally made works. Jostein shares cute slice-of-life comics, work/request art, and thoughtful reviews of other artists’ work. Lately, he does cartoons for newspapers and magazines in his homeland of Norway.

Pixelart friends - my girlfriend, some of my closest friends and myself as pixel characters

Pixelart friends – “my girlfriend, some of my closest friends and myself as pixel characters”

The Interview

How did you get into art?

I think it’s been an ongoing process since my childhood. I suppose some of the first things I did was to copy drawings from Donald Duck comics. As a teenager, I found inspiration to draw manga style characters by watching Japanese animation (Pokémon) and playing the Final Fantasy RPGs. Somewhere between junior high and high school, I discovered webcomics, and I’ve been an avid fan of the medium ever since.

In recent years, I’ve become more serious about learning to draw and how to utilize a variety of tools, both traditional and digital. I’m also trying to educate myself by reading books about comics and studying various drawing styles.

What artists have influenced you in the course of your career?

There are quite a few artists that I like and draw inspiration from. Two genres that I really love are journal comics and travelogue comics. Of the artists making awesome stuff in either one or both of these genres, I have to mention Lucy Knisley (French Milk, Relish), Yuko Ota (Johnny Wander) and Guy Delisle (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City).

I’m also a big fan of Yotsuba&!, created by Kiyohiko Azuma. His high level art style and storytelling makes me wish that I could create something equally good. Not unrelated to manga, I also really like Mark Crilley’s work. He also does educational and entertaining how to draw-videos on YouTube, in addition to his own graphic novels.

What aspect of your work is the most fun, in your opinion? The most difficult?

Getting something right, like when drawing a pose or choosing a nice color palette for an image. Or simply getting the timing and flow right when drawing a comic. I also like getting “likes” and positive comments on my drawings on Facebook and Instagram. Not to mention positive feedback on my blog. That’s always a lot of fun and really rewarding.

To be brutally honest, I think the hardest thing is getting started. In a worst case scenario, I get stuck in a rut with low self esteem, judging my work in the worst possible way even though I haven’t even made a single pencil line. Luckily, I’m learning to snap out of it and just start creating. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get anything done.

Ultimately, do you see yourself making art your life, or would you consider an alternative career path?

At the time being, I make a decent living by doing freelance and part time work as a graphic designer. It’s a nice job where I get to be creative and use my experience in media production. But I would of course like to be able to work more on my own ideas and projects. I can also see myself doing more commissioned work, like illustrations and comics.

I’m very eager to learn new things and perhaps expand into other creative realms, like animation or photo- and videography. Sadly, time constraints forces me to focus on a limited number of “hobbies” at any given time. I guess time will show. In any case, I don’t plan to stop growing as an artist 🙂

Please share any work or snippet of a work you would like:

This is a guest comic I made for the webcomic Boumeries. I really like it because it tested my imagination and storytelling abilities. This particular strip also made it into print, in volume 3 of the Boumeries books. I’m pretty stoked about that, so I just wanted to use this chance to brag about it.

Guest comic for Boumeries (http://comics.boumerie.com/)

Guest comic for Boomers

Jostein is also responsible for this awesome image featuring the two main characters from my novel Ciphers. He really did capture them perfectly. >^_^< Thank you, Jostein, for the lovely illustration! And of course for being the first Upstart to join The Uprising!

Brid (long-boarding tomboy linguist) and Siph (fire-wielding half-alien grumpmeister)

Brid (long-boarding tomboy linguist) and Siph (fire-wielding half-alien grumpmeister)

The Grand Unveiling!


The Prologue

It has been a month and a half since my last post, mostly due to my grand adventures in  setting up my new apartment and getting used to my new job, which to be honest has taken a serious drain on my energy. I haven’t had to regularly wake up at 5am since high school, and to suddenly jump into that again 5 days a week hasn’t been the most fun part of my new life. Fortunately working morning hours adds a couple hundred yen to my lesson rates, and most days I can be home for a much-needed nap by 4:30. I also happen to enjoy my work and my environment. And let’s face it, being in Japan always makes life better. I still write mental love notes to this country almost every day.

Dear Japan, you are wonderful. Never let me have to leave you and stop eating nikuman.

Dear Japan, conbinis. ‘Nuff said.

The Plan

Anyway, now that I finally have a scrap of weekend, my plan today is to unveil a project that I’ve had on my mind for some time now. It’s intended to be a monthly installment celebrating not just writers, but up-and-coming artists of all mediums from all over the world. So painters, web comickers, photographers, children’s book writers/illustrators, and novelists are all in the line-up already, with others coming as I find them.

One of the most important things to an artist of any medium or genre, outside of their actual craft, is having a supportive network both in real life and online. And as I know quite a few artistic people with more than a modicum of skill, I figured why not brag about them? They get some press, my readers get the option of discovering fresh talent, and my blog gets more traffic than if I just ramble about myself all the time.

The basic idea is a showcase. Each participant receives their own post which includes a blurb from me, some excerpts of their work, and a brief interview. Enough to draw some outside attention, without giving everything away.

In the spirit of adventure (and by suggestion of some awesome Nanoers on Facebook), I’ve decided to title this new segment The Uprising.

The first installment will be along shortly, so stay tuned!


Kristen Lamb's Blog

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One of the reasons I encourage writers to blog and to read blogs is that you will find inspiration all around you. A dear friend of mine, Steve Tobak, has a MASSIVE blog following and is the business blogger for CBS, Fox Business and Inc.

I love reading his posts about entrepreneurs because so much applies to authors (we are entrepreneurs of a different sort, but still entrepreneurs). The other day, he had a post called 7 Things Confident Leaders Don’t Do, and I am going to take the liberty of retooling this for writers.

In a world full of wanna-be best-sellers, confident writers don’t:

1. Do What Everyone Else is Doing

Find your own voice and tell your own story. Don’t write to the market. Find the publishing path that works for you. If self-publishing works for you, your budget and your personality, great. The stigma is fading…

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A very well-formed perspective on language learning from my friend in the JET program. 🙂

Mie!

DSC_3486

As a Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program participant (a JET), I am writing this for people interested in studying foreign languages, taking the JLPT, moving to a foreign country, and for people who might want a different perspective on the process of learning a language. I know how it feels to try to learn a language and fail, I did that with Spanish and Italian. My Italian teacher even agreed with me that I was bad at foreign languages. By the time I came to study Japanese, I’d had enough of failing.

As anyone who is studying Japanese knows, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is the ultimate way for foreigners to gauge their progress in mastering the language. The test is divided into five levels, with N5 being the easiest and N1 the most difficult. Theoretically, if you can pass N1 you should be able to read a Japanese…

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