It’s the same every year—shortly after Halloween, when Pumpkin Spice gets the boot in favor of Peppermint Mocha, my anxiety shoots through the roof. It’s November 3rd! It’s practically Christmas Eve! My love language is gifts, and my husband is gift-challenged, so the majority of holiday gift brainstorming, researching, purchasing, wrapping, and giving ultimately falls on me. I like it when I can come up with the perfect gift (like the 7-Eleven Tour de France bike jersey I got for my husband a few years ago), and I get stressed when I fall short (my brother’s wish list ranges from ‘airplane’ to ‘ski trip in Vermont,’ so I invariably end up getting him gift cards, which always makes me feel stupid).
Anyway, this year, I had a great gift idea for my youngest daughter. Before she was born, I wrote and illustrated a picture book for her sister called “Fairy for a Day.” It featured my eldest rescuing a fairy and being gifted wings and a fantastic floral wardrobe, replete with sparkles and friendly woodland creatures. Both my girls love reading it, and I figured it was high time my youngest had a picture book of her own.
The catch is, of course, that picture books take time. A lot of time. There’s a reason hiring an illustrator is so expensive, and it’s because nothing kills the look of a project more than it being rushed. Here’s a secret: I actually don’t like reading the Fairy for a Day book I wrote for my eldest. The writing is bad and the illustrations are bad, and it’s because I did it too fast, trying to whip it off with enough time to send to the printer before her birthday.
I’ve grown a lot as an illustrator since then. I dedicated most of 2016 to honing my ability to work efficiently. I’d set timers for digital paintings and make myself consider the piece done when the time was up. I participated in Inktober for the first time, which forced me to move on to a new piece each day. It’s not easy working like this—it’s a skill that has to be practiced. And of course, nothing tops the quality gained by a generous deadline. But sometimes we simply don’t have the time. I’m still not as efficient as I’d like to be, but I’m a lot better than I was when I created Fairy for a Day. So it was with more confidence that I set about creating my youngest’s Christmas present--Mermaid for a Day.
In this month’s blog post, I’m sharing some suggestions for how to create an appealing, dynamic piece while on a tight deadline. See them all below the jump!
I’ve been thinking a lot about heroines this month.
It started with Inktober, the month-long challenge where artists post a pen and ink drawing every day. Back at the end of September, when the news cycle was especially ugly, I wasn’t sure I was going to have the emotional stamina to see Inktober through this year. I’ve come to love it—it’s made ink one of my favorite mediums besides digital art. But 31 days of illustrations seemed like such a tall order in a world where political and climate disasters are so big and my voice and efforts seem so small. Normally I like to plot out my posts ahead of time, but as September wound down with little to no inspiration for the official prompts, it seemed more and more pointless.
Two things saved me. One was my current re-read of the Queen’s Thief series in preparation for the release of Return of the Thief early next year (this marks the 897th time Megan Whalen Turner’s work has rescued me emotionally). The other was the official prompt for Inktober day 1: “poisonous.” Being deep into the Queen’s Thief automatically made me think of the character of Irene, who poisons the man trying to steal her throne. This led me to wonder what other fictional heroines could fit with the other prompts, and all of a sudden I had a sub-theme. I would draw a different heroine every day, hoping to wrap myself up in women who make things happen, whether that means toppling regimes or loving their families. So began #31DaysofHeroines.
I also had the great experience of being on an awesome Girl Power panel at the ReadUp Book Festival in Greenville, SC. For one hour, Gwenda Bond (Lois Lane: Fallout), Beth Revis (Give the Dark My Love), Hope Larson (All Summer Long), and I talked about our favorite heroines, writing wonderful women, and navigating our current social and political climate. I also got to sit in on other panels with some of my favorite YA authors, like Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), Nic Stone (Odd One Out), and Becky Albertalli (Leah on the Offbeat) as they talked about identity, gender, and writing honest, powerful characters.
All this has led to a solid month of recalling all my favorite heroines from literature and movies and analyzing what I love about them. If you had asked me on September 30th, I would have wondered if I could see this sub-theme through to the end. Now I wish I had another three months of prompts to fill in. There are so many amazing girl characters that I wasn't able to incorporate. And simply surrounding myself with some of my favorite fictional women, both from my childhood and from recent reads, has revitalized me more than I ever would have expected a month ago.
It’s also highlighted some common threads among this spectrum of characters. Whether it’s a fairy tale a few centuries old or a fresh, progressive story from this year, I found that a handful of the same themes kept jumping out at me. So this month, for writers plotting out their mighty heroines, I’ve put together a list of six ways to elevate your heroines to the next level. Read them all after the jump!
I've said it before and I'll say it again: fan art--and fan fiction--gets a bad rap, despite having this amazing power to build community, support other creators, and expand an artist or writer's skills. It took me a long time to stop feeling embarrassed about creating fan art and -fiction--now I can look back and see all the strides I've made because I was inspired by my favorite books or movies to draw and write, and I can safely say I wouldn't be at the same place, technically or stylistically, without sketchbooks and Word documents full of fan-fueled creations.
It's timely, then, that I'll be giving two presentations this summer on the power and value of fan art! I'll be sharing some work that has made a difference in my career and doing a live-drawing demonstration of a popular character the audience will help me pick (for more info, see my Events page). To get ready for these programs, I asked my Facebook and Twitter followers to vote on a character I should draw for my May blog post. Out of a poll of four cool young women, Katara beat out Hermione, Eowyn, and Moana!
I got into Avatar: The Last Airbender in undergrad, which at the time felt way too old to be watching a kid's anime, but now I love referencing it as an example of masterful storytelling, worldbuilding, and character arcs. And I hadn't drawn Katara in so long! So here she is---check out her progress video and art tutorial below the jump!
The Creatures of Light trilogy is complete! Help celebrate the last book in the series by participating in the Creatures of Light Coloring Contest! One randomly-drawn winner will receive a full trilogy set, with author-illustrated title pages and matching bookmarks!
The contest runs from March 12 to April 15, 2018. Get all the details, rules, and, of course, coloring pages in the Coloring tab!
This month, in the lead-up to the Creatures of Light paperback release, I've been producing all kinds of bonus content--including character profiles for a few final main characters. The most significant, of course, is Celeno, Seventh King of Alcoro and sort of the unwitting epicenter of all the messes everybody's sorting through in the series. His character design has remained fairly constant from my early drafts--my mom fan-cast him as Oscar Isaac pretty early on, which has given me a good stable design foundation (as well as a phone gallery full of Poe Dameron screencaps).
For Celeno's official character portrait, I took a video of my Photoshop process, from sketch to finished product. Check it out below the jump:
Quick, when I say Harry Potter, what’s the visual image that springs to your mind?
It’s probably a picture of the protagonists decked out with wands and robes, right? But is that all? Are they drifting in a void? Or do you see the setting around them—vast, mischievous Hogwarts castle, with its shifting staircases and moving portraits? The mysterious library, the murky lake, the rolling grounds?
As writers, we hear a lot about worldbuilding—the art of creating a deep, well-rounded world that provides the physical and cultural setting for our plot. When this is done well, any mention of a story instantly gives the reader a vivid mental picture. But worldbuilding can go a step further! Instead of just being a setting or backdrop for your characters to move through, it can become almost another side character—something that your characters don’t just react to, but interact with. Something that gives heft to the plot and affects the story.
This is a post I’ve been planning for months, ever since I attended a local school’s career day and geeked out with a bunch of middle-school artists about fandoms and fantasy. When I told them their sketchbooks reminded me of mine at that age, they exclaimed that I should post re-draws of some of my old art. I told them I would—but of course, between then and now, I’ve had a full manuscript to re-write and an eighteen-chapter middle grade novel to illustrate, on top of my day job and maintaining the illusion of being a competent parent. Now, in the brief inhale between projects, I have just enough time to finally follow through on this post.
There was no question as to which work I should redo, particularly not after I got my hands on Megan Whalen Turner’s Thick as Thieves, the fifth book in the Queen’s Thief series. I’ve posted twice before about the impact MWT has had on me and my art and writing, but the cliff notes version is--a lot of impact. I read the first book shortly after it came out in 1996, and from day one the protagonists started appearing in my childhood drawings. From sketchbook to sketchbook, through the rise and fall of other obsessions, Eugenides was a constant face—he appears at least once, and usually much more, in all fourteen of my high school sketchbooks. And Turner’s storytelling has been driving my own since I first started scribbling stories in spiral-bounds at age ten—right around the same time I first read The Thief.
So it’s fitting, I think, for this post to be half art-redraws and half testament to my longest-running, longest-beloved fandom.
I wish I had some of the earliest pieces I drew in elementary and middle school, but unfortunately, most of that art is gone now. The plastic portfolio I was keeping many of them in got wet at some point in my parents’ basement and mildewed beyond recognition. So sadly, the earliest work I have is from around 2005, when I was a junior in high school and nine years into my relationship with MWT’s work.
Based on context clues from the surrounding pages in my sketchbook, at that time I was hashing out the plot for my 7th spiral-bound novel and in the first real fever-pitch of my obsession with Lord of the Rings. I had the time and brainspace in those days for two obsessions at once, and sure enough, in the midst of cropping off movie-Legolas’ blonde locks and drawing weird winged cat creatures, Gen and his companions pop up, complete with awkward posing and a cartoonishly villainous Ambiades.
My style in those days tended toward oversized heads and undersized necks, and noses that extended halfway up foreheads. I was learning from old Internet mainstays like Tealin and Makani, trading my ill-formed pseudo-anime for their Disneyesque style. I still draw my heads too big and my necks too long, so even though the below redraw was done in 2015, I tweaked it a little to fix some of those errors.
Half a sketchbook later, in the summer of 2005, amid the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Gen was back, this time with Helen, who is obviously telling him off about something. Gen still has his long hair, so I like to think of this as Helen coming to find him after the events of The Thief.
At the time I was not a fan of Irene, thinking of her as soulless and cruel, but the thing I love most about MWT’s work is that it has aged with me. Now I love the sharp vulnerability and complexity of Irene’s character and how both she and Helen use every ounce of their resources to direct their lives and their countries.
As a strange interlude—this was around the same time I started watching the Marx Brothers, too, which my brain somehow fused irrevocably into a moment from Thick as Thieves, when we learn Gen re-introduces himself to the Mede ambassador every time they meet.
Near the end of high school I started teaching myself to work digitally. I’ve lost a lot of my earliest work—it’s probably on some ancient floppy disk or fifty-meg thumb drive, but I’ve yet to find it. The oldest digital Thief piece I can find is from around 2007, when I was a freshman in college and re-reading the series for the umpteenth time. By this point I had developed a basic proficiency in Photoshop, though my egregious use of a single jarring background texture leaves something to be desired, demonstrated here as Pol threatens Gen to keep his mouth shut. Judging from Pol’s exaggerated Bruce Timm torso, this was around the time I was watching a lot of animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited
My college sketchbooks were dominated once again by Lord of the Rings, my own novels, and new faces from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but Gen still sneaks in once in a while, accompanied now by Costis and Sophos. The “Are you out of your mind?” exchange in Queen of Attolia is probably my most-illustrated scene, showing up in 2006 and 2007, and again here in 2010—the year I got married and started my first position with the National Park Service.
“What would I have done if Attolia had caught you, cut you up into little pieces, and sent the pieces back to me?”
With the birth of my daughters, my time to draw dwindled, and as I wrote and queried Woodwalker, my time vanished almost completely. Any sketching went to character development for my novels, and finished digital work went to promo material for their publication. And yet. In 2015, despite having less personal time than I’d ever had before in my life, guess who pops up right in the middle of paintings of Mae and Mona?
2015 was only two years ago, and while I produced some good art I still like, the piece below was not my greatest. I was practicing my speedpainting, trying to force myself to work looser and faster, and I still hadn’t gained full confidence in the process, leaving my colors over-saturated and my proportions a bit too stretched. I solved this in the repaint by using practically no color at all, which you might recognize as cheating, but in the spirit of the thing I decided to keep to a speedpaint, focusing more on correcting the wacky proportions and garish lighting.
Now, in 2017, I’m working on muting my palette, making myself work within a narrower range on the spectrum. I’m hoping this moves me toward a more mature look, as my current aesthetic tends to lead folks to assume my novels are middle-grade unicorn fantasies. I’m embracing a little softer style and, as always, fighting for good depth. It’s fun to dive into my cringey old sketchbooks and see where I’ve come from. Maybe soon I’ll do some more redraws. Maybe in another few years I’ll redo some of the ones in this post.
At any rate, it’s safe to assume Eugenides will still be right there with me.
We are t-minus ONE WEEK from the e-release of ASHES TO FIRE! The e-book launches next Tuesday, January 31, 2017, and the paperback will follow a few weeks later. Woohoo! Readers will get to follow Mae, Mona, and the other characters from WOODWALKER on a new adventure--new stakes, new country, and new characters! Let's take a look...
Ah, Mister Rou. His real name is Theophilius Roubideaux, but he thinks that's pretentious. Queen Mona describes him alternately as "indecent and asinine" and "insufferably likable." Part savvy diplomat, part impulsive swamp bandit, Rou has the distinct ability to charm his way out of most (self-wrought) sticky situations. He is a diametric opposite to cool, composed Mona, so obviously there could be absolutely no chemistry whatsoever between the two of them...........
See more illustrations of Rou in my Portfolio!
Rou's twin brother Lyle, however, couldn't be more different. Rou describes him to Mona as "downright surly on a good day... balancing long chemical reactions is his idea of a two-way conversation." But what he lacks in his twin's charisma, he makes up for in academic brilliance--Lyle is a wickedly talented chemist and engineer... and it can't be denied that Mona needs a tactical advantage over her enemies. Could Lyle be her ticket to finally protecting Lumen Lake from the threat of Alcoro?
To see a little progress video of Lyle's illustration, see my Videos page!
And after all, Alcoro is indeed a threat, led by their ruthless, tyrannical... quiet and compassionate Queen Gemma? Mona has no idea what to make of her enemy queen, partner to the despotic Seventh King Celeno who ordered the invasion of Lumen Lake four years previously. First impressions give way to second and third impressions, which eventually leave Mona wondering if she knows anything at all about the country that overthrew hers. One thing is for sure---it won't do to underestimate Gemma's role in this conflict, for good or bad.
See these three illustrations alongside the other protagonists on my Characters page!
(DRAMATIC ORCHESTRA STING)
So, there are three of your new characters in ASHES TO FIRE. I will be posting a video in a day or two with more information about the book release, including some details on the launch party and what readers of WOODWALKER can expect in book two. Look for it on my Facebook page (I won't post it on my Videos page because it features my face instead of artwork).
Thanks for following along on this adventure! Don't forget you can pre-order the e-book so you get it right on January 31, and you will be able to pre-order the paperback starting in February!
All I want for Christmas is 50 Amazon reviews!
And we're so close! Right now Woodwalker is sitting at exactly 45 reviews—it only needs five more! Amazon is perhaps the biggest influence in a book’s sales, and 50 reviews is sort of their threshold for determining whether a book has a decent following or not. If you’ve read Woodwalker, whether you loved it or wanted to gouge out your eyeballs with compass needles by the end, would you please consider leaving a brief, honest review?
Just like last time, as incentive, I have a second wave of spoiler art ready to go live on my website once we hit that magic number. Additionally, I’ll publicly post my most recent painting, a rather dashing portrait of Valien Bluesmoke, King of the Silverwood.
Reviews on other sites, like Goodreads, are more than welcome, as well. As always, thank you so much for your support, and happy holiday season!
Update: Woohoo, you did it!
Barely two hours after this post went live, Woodwalker received its 50th Amazon review! As promised, there are ten brand-new highly spoilery pieces up in the Spoiler Gallery (spoiler: there are spoilers involved, so don't click if you want to remain unspoiled of the spoilers). And here is your GQ-esque portrait of cunning Valien, also on display in my portfolio:
Thank you again for your support and feedback. Please continue to leave reviews for the books you read, particularly by lesser-known authors--they are the best tool for a book's success!
"What else did you bring?" I asked. "Tell me you brought something besides traveling tunics.”
Mae glared at me. “In case you’d forgotten, we left the Silverwood in a bit of a hurry after a night of no sleep. I packed for battle, not tea and cookies.”
“Rivers to the sea.” I pushed back my chair and stood. “You’ll have to borrow something of mine.”
“Three reasons.” She pointed to her breasts. “One. Two.” She slapped her hips. “Three. And you’d have to hem about a foot off the bottom.”
I went to my trunk. “We’ll make it work.”
“You doubt my sewing skills.”
“I do. You’re not a miracle worker. Just let me wear my uniform.”
“I saw it when we met with Atria. The knees are filthy. Tell me, what color is the cleanest pair of breeches you brought?”
She sighed and propped her boots up on the end of her bunk. “Probably brown. Most of them are brown.”
“Do you have gray?”
“No, I don’t have gray. What does it matter?”
“Brown’s a bad color for you. Muddies you.”
She fanned herself in mock distress. “Oh, you cruel thing. To think I’ve gone this far in life not knowing…”
I pulled out the richest color I had brought, a midnight blue gown with a square neckline. “You should consider wearing reds, or pastels.”
“Pastels?” She spit the word out as if it tasted bad.
“Something other than olive drab and brown.”
“Maybe I’ll just go naked, so Celeno’s not offended,” she said vehemently. “And don’t slam green—it’s the color of our banner.”
“Then let it stay on the banner. Get up,” I said, dragging a chair into the middle of the floor. “Let’s get to work.”
“I thought we were supposed to be talking about something practical?” she said.
“On the chair.”
-Ashes to Fire
One of my favorite exchanges between Mae and Mona in Ashes to Fire! I really love how the relationship between these two grows and changes through the two books. After the events of Woodwalker, they're able to appreciate and trust the other a lot more, leading to some great dialogue and action between them.
Ashes to Fire releases as an e-book on January 31, 2017! The paperback will follow a few weeks later. You can pre-order the e-book through HarperCollins for just $3.99.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator