I was always interested in storytelling. I studied acting, theatre, film, and writing in college. I had friends who were aspiring novelists. They inspired me and I started writing a couple of books (that I never finished). But it was the pages and pages of poetry I wrote my first couple of years of college that made me think I could have some kind of career as a writer.
I signed up for a University poetry course. The professor had been mentored by a former poet laureate, and that got me excited. I had all these pages of poetry and I thought I was pretty good at it, but knew I could learn even more. The weeks leading up to the course, I dreamed of being mentored on word choice, composition, structure... everything that I didn't know about. All I had were my words and imagery, and people telling me that I was good. So I looked forward to getting even better.
Unfortunately, the professor seemed more interested in turning us all into small-minded, bitter poetry critics, than actually helping us to become poets. It seemed like if you didn't come in with an innate talent, she had no way to help you. Considering poetry is about putting your emotions down on paper, it was an awful experience to get derisive criticism with no guidance toward improvement. It's true, I didn't really know what I was doing (and my very experienced hindsight tells me that no one else in that course did, either. Including the professor) but to be derided for it when I was in a class that was supposed to help me learn... I'll admit, it broke me.
I figured I didn't have the stuff to be a writer. I didn't know what that stuff was, or what it was supposed to look like, but too many people had just told me I didn't have it. And while my aspiring novelist friends were cranking out novel after novel (little did I know they would never let those books see the light of day), I was surrendering. Not completely, mind you. I wanted to remain a storyteller. I was just letting go of something I thought I was bad at to focus on the storytelling I was good at... theatre.
Since I didn't live in New York or Los Angeles, full-time work in the theatre wasn't going to happen. I took a day job. I was working as a trainer for a call center. After I taught my first course, I asked if I could re-write the course materials. My boss told me to go for it. Really, this was just a means to an end. My goal was to fix the documentation we presented to the students so that it was easier to read and comprehend, and save me time as a trainer. Without realizing it, I was a writer again.
The person who did realize it was Louise Westcott. She was the technical writer for the corporation, and it was her job to review all corporate communication, even training materials. She told me that I was a great process writer, and that if I was interested, she wanted me on her team. Turns out it was more money, so I went for it and started my new career as a technical writer. Louise mentored me and helped close up the gaps in my writing education. I got really good at copy editing, formatting, and page design, as well as just writing in general. It turns out that I did have the stuff.
It was around this time in my life when my friend, Jason Anderson, told me about this new magazine he wanted to publish called "Masters of Roleplaying." We'd played plenty of RPGs together when I was in college, and he wondered if I would write some articles and such for the magazine. I was excited to. I also mentioned I could help edit articles if he needed it, as I had just acquired this skill.
Before I knew it, I was editing almost everything being submitted to the magazine, and Jason made me the Editor in Chief. We worked together on the magazine for a couple of years with some pretty big successes. Jason got us a major distribution deal through a back-door I think the distributor didn't realize was there; Lucasfilm sent us exclusive images for their upcoming film: Star Wars: Episode 1; and the game publishers were sending us game after game to review. But without advertisers or investors, apart from Jason, we soon ran out of money and had to shut the magazine down.
The "Dot-Com" crash of 2000 and the attacks on September 11, 2001 had me bouncing from one corporate tech writing job to the next. It was frustrating. I was always the last one hired for the team and the first one let go once the manual, help system, or whatever they wanted written was done. Nobody had the money to keep me. Usually it wasn't my boss making the decision, just some guy at the top who wanted his bonus and he saw me as an unnecessary expense.
I ran into my friend, Robert J. Defendi outside a Costco. He mentioned he was heading to a writers group. I practically begged him to let me join. I think he tried to talk me out of it, trying to scare me with how many pages people would submit and the like, but I persisted and he let me in. After a few meetings, I felt comfortable enough to start submitting my own material. If you're a writer and have never worked with a writers group before, I highly recommend it. I learned a lot about the craft of storytelling through interacting with other writers. I got amazing feedback, and positive reinforcement and guidance for my own work, which encouraged me to keep going (take THAT, university poetry course!).
Sadly, as the early 21st Century wore on I was struggling more and more to pay my bills, and we were forced to move in with my wife's parents. I took a job at a start-up. The promise of this job was a big payout at the end, when the software we were developing was sold to another corporation. The down-side was the long hours. We were working 10-14 hour days six days a week. That schedule forced me to give up on a lot of my creative endeavors for a while and even leave the writers group.
Of course, I kept writing... Technical writing, help systems, web pages, marketing copy, white papers, certification documentation, even ROIs for the sales team. And, when I did have a moment, there were a couple of short stories here and there (usually written on company time).
In the end, the big payout promised to us didn't happen. I was laid off and broke, but I left with a whole new set of marketable skills, and I kept pushing forward.
Jason Anderson reached out to me and asked if I would edit his two latest book series: Soulchasers and Jean Archer. I was happy to help out, so I dusted off my old editorial skills and "bled all over his books" for him. It was inspiring to work on something creative again, and I started to think about how I could get back into it. I considered a few things, but comic books kept coming back to me. The problem? I didn't know how to break into comics... yet.
When I started podcasting about comic books a few years ago, I met Chris Hoffman. He and his friends had created a comic book about a Utah superhero team: The Salt City Strangers. We had them on to talk about their book and breaking into comics. I must have expressed both a desire to do that, and revealed that I was a writer to them... I ran into Chris at a Comic Book Convention a few months after their appearance on my show and he asked if I would be interested in writing something for them.
Having spent several years of my life at that time volunteering with the Boy Scouts, I picked their character Den Mother as my first real project.
Writing Den Mother was a very different experience. I knew the basics of writing a comic book, but didn't understand all the rules and craft that goes into it. Instead, I just focussed on telling a good, compelling story in pictures. I think it worked. More importantly, it bit me hard with the writing bug. It was time to dust off an old idea and bring it to life at last.
That's the one.
I'd conceived of this story years before, but hadn't really sat down to write it out. As I focussed on the idea, I had several storytelling breakthroughs that got me started, and the words just came pouring out. I wrote the first six issues in about four months time. I'd also recently worked with the theatrical writing team of Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola on a play. They introduced me to the idea of a beat sheet called "Save the Cat." I structured the first story on this and found that writing it out was a lot easier.
My first time showing it to a comics professional introduced me to Mort Weisinger's "210 words to a page rule." The idea is that you can only fit about two-hundred and ten words on a page before you start covering up the art with word balloons. You have to divide these words among your panels. Five panel pages means a maximum of forty-two words in a panel. Fewer panels on a page means the more words you can have, and more panels means the fewer words in each. Outside of a tendency for overly wordy exposition, that worked for me. Since if I have more than six panels on a page it means I'm doing an action sequence and that's going to just be sound effects. On top of that, a word balloon can look too big if you put more than twenty-five words in it. So what did all that mean for my draft? It meant thrift was the name of the game. I dug deep into my Scottish ancestry to pull out my thrifty nature, and started making cuts.
After I got the script ready, I reached out to find artists to help me draw, color, and letter the book. I threw up a couple of posts on Digital Webbing offering what I could afford to get at least some preliminary pages done. Finding the right team wasn't going to be easy... except that the people I picked made it somehow easy for me to pick them out of all the submissions I received. Greg, Laurie, Lala, and Andy were simply the right fit for the book. That's all there was to it.
I've included the script page with each finished page to show my process and how often an artist, letterer, and editor can improve the book.
Click on any image to view at full size.
On the first page you'll notice The letterer improved my ontomatpeia and Alexandre improved my combat panels layout.
Everything on these pages came from my own volunteer Scouting experience (semi-autobiographical). I even named a couple of the boys after some memorable boys from my Webelos Den. Since Alexandre was from Brazil and wouldn't know anything about Cecret Lake (it's a real place), Springbar Tents, or my super-specific Scouting details, I created an images page, with photos of everything I was describing. So when you see "(see Figure 1)" in my script, it's referring to that images page. Also, you will see my flashback concept explained at the top of page 4. I wanted these flashbacks to have no panel structure. Just images that flowed into one another, or, in the case of page 16, had photographs dropped on photographs. For the most part that happened, and when it didn't it still worked.
When Chris Hoffman asked me to write this origin story for Den Mother, I asked: "What do you have written about her origin so far?" He said: "Not much, but her entire family was tragically killed." Suddenly "Weird" Al Yankovic's "Nature Trail to Hell" started playing in my head. This whole story was the result of me recalling the lyrics: "There's a homicidal maniac who finds a Cub Scout troop and hacks up two or three in every scene!"
My original page 11 became 2 pages. This was because Alexandre didn't include the third panel, the hero image, in his final artwork for page 11. So we got him to do the hero image as a splash page for page 12. It was a happy accident, because it's so cool to see her in her full glory on a splash page (especially after the horrible things I did to her and her family in this story).
Colored image of Page 12. Colors by JC Carter and Photoshop
"With our thoughts we create the world." - Buddha
For over two-hundred years, the White Crane Temple in China has trained women to fight back against the world of men. Its location has been kept secret, told by women only to other women. But now, they have sent their greatest warrior to modern-day Los Angeles. Will her dark past and feelings of unworthiness prevent her from carrying out her mission to defend the helpless?
This is a female-lead comic book.
Because we already have dozens, if not hundreds, of male-lead Shaolin Monk stories. It's time for a woman to take the lead.
The main cast are all people of color.
Which is a better example of the Los Angeles demographic, and, frankly, reality.
This is a martial arts story.
Told by a 30-year Kung Fu practitioner, with a focus on the philosophy behind martial arts. Because it's just as important to know when to punch as how to punch.
This is not a "capes and tights" comic book.
Aside from some pretty crazy martial arts stunts, the book tries to stay fairly grounded in reality. Well, Los Angeles reality, which is understandably subjective.
Kickstarter is being used to build an early presale audience and provide the funds to pay the artists for their talented work. 100% of the money raised either goes to the artists or to pay for and ship rewards. Not one dollar comes back to me.
To learn more and keep up with us, go to: shaolinnun.com.