Art

Art and Beginner's Mind

I've been making art lately. And not writing; I mean visual art. Mostly watercolor. Now, though, I have a new and improved camera, and I'm trying to do some artful photography, as well.

This might be a little surprising to many of you. I make games and stories, surely that's enough artistic expression for anyone?

Well, it is and it isn't. Here's the problem: It's increasingly difficult for me to make goofy little weekend projects like I used to without feeling some obligation to make it a commercial transaction. I can make pictures because I think they'll be fun or to experiment. I don't need to be worried about honing my craft or marketability, I don't need to worry about deadlines, I don't need to worry about whether I'm going to disappoint my publishers, backers, or audience. It's relaxing in a way that writing rarely is for me.

Though to be honest, I've haven't been a write-as-a-hobby kind of writer since middle school anyway. In 8th grade it was all ElfQuest fanfiction, but ever since then my writing has been for a grade, or a contest, or a submission.

Visual art, though...when I was a kid, and even up until college, I drew much more than I wrote. Much more. Given what I love and how I used to spend my free time, it's kind of surprising that I've never started a webcomic of any stripe.

There's another angle, too. See, I'm not actually an especially talented or skilled artist or photographer. I'm just screwing around. Do I want to get better? Yeah! But there's nothing at stake, so making something kinda terrible is fine.  

That's beginner's mind, to me, and it's priceless. A beginner is open to being wrong and doing bad work. A beginner is open to learning and growing. A beginner is ready to throw away preconceived notions and paradigms if they aren't working, starting fresh instead of patching the old one. And this experimental, stakes-lowering mindset relaxes me enough that I can take that feeling into the rest of my life, and even my paying work.

There is enormous value in giving yourself permission to do things simply because you like to do them, regardless of skill or outcome.

Anyway, if you want to follow along on my adventures in visual art, I post 'em up on Instagram from time to time. Probably I'll be posting the odd selfie and book cover there, too but mostly it's watercolor and still life photography for now. Probably none of it will be super amazing? And that is, for once, A-OK.


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Confessions of a Transmedia Pundit

If you're a long-time reader here, it won't have escaped your notice that I stopped talking about transmedia a while back. I'm not writing about craft anymore, I'm not giving talks at conferences, and I've been increasingly winding down or declining commitments to run workshops, speak to classes of aspiring digital professionals, and so on. But it's not because I've left transmedia, and not that I don't believe in transmedia anymore.

Partly this is because I'm in an extremely fortunate position wherein haven't needed to hustle for new projects for a long time now. But it was already in the cards when I was still hustling. Mostly it's because I don't want to sell snake oil, and when I talked about transmedia, snake oil was where I was headed -- and definitely what audiences wanted from me: promises that if they just did what I told them, they'd get more engagement, attract more eyeballs, and make more money.

That's not always true. Transmedia is not your magic bullet; you can use every technique in the toolbox and still make a project nobody ever looks at or cares about. Sometimes implementing a transmedia strategy is a waste of precious energy and resources. It's hard to say that when your goal is to get people to hire you for money to do things, though. But look: transmedia isn't synonymous with innovative or interesting, nor is it a replacement for a traditional marketing plan.

Anyway, I didn't want to become someone eternally pitching something I didn't believe in anymore. So I stopped punditing, basically.

There's another reason, too. While I was still on the conference circuit, I found myself increasingly talking about work that I'd done or experienced three years before, five years. Meanwhile the amount of work I was actually doing was paltry, and I don't think any transmedia work I've done has been noteworthy since... well. *coughs* It's been a while. 

I got into this field because of the art, because of the audience relationships, because when you make something amazing and electric, there's nothing else like it. I got into this because of The Beast, because I was told a story and gifted with an experience that changed my life. I want to do that, too. 

I wasn't ever, ever going to do that by speaking to a group of brand strategists about the engagement pyramid.

When something isn't working for you, when you find yourself walking down a path that goes somewhere you don't want to be, the only answer is to turn a corner and head somewhere else. So what have I been doing instead? I doubled and tripled down on making instead of talking

I've got a really magnificent long-term project that you could probably call transmedia I'm working on -- details will come eventually, I swear. Hopefully in the next couple of months!

And I've also been chipping away at a long-term plan to build some credibility as a writer, and maybe start some organic growth so that one day I can go to a publisher or a production company and have the gravitas to get more complex things made... without having to start a studio my own self. I've done independent works like Lucy Smokeheart and The McKinnon Account. I've also somehow turned into a legit science fiction author. I've written a novel, I've published a few short stories. I'm represented by Zoe Sandler at ICM now, and I'm a member of SFWA. I have a game on the way, and some secret stuff, too. I'm making again. It feels... amazing.

But I'm still here, and I have big plans. Long-range plans, to be sure. But hopefully when we get there, you'll find it's been worth the wait.

And who knows, maybe when the time comes, I'll finally have some new things to say about transmedia, too.

 


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Children of Rouwen

Most of the news around here lately is about that book, but meanwhile Fireside Magazine published a new piece of short fiction from me on Monday: Children of Rouwen. I'd be delighted if you would read it and tell me what you think!

I'd like to talk a bit about where that story comes from -- and this is incredibly spoilery, so if you care about that sort of thing, please, read the story before you continue. Children of Rouwen is very directly inspired by and in conversation with Ursula Vernon's Elegant and Fine, a breathtaking work about Narnia, and about Susan, and the realistic emotional consequences of living a life in Narnia and then... coming home again, into a child's life and a child's body. It's a fine piece of writing, and Ursula Vernon is a genius.

This got me to thinking about the nature of portal fantasy as a whole, and about the ones who get left behind. If you think on it, the adults of Narnia, living through wartime and reconstruction, arguably need a little magic even more than the children do. The idea of being left behind, of being the one not chosen, of having missed your chance -- I think that speaks to a deep human fear. And there's another layer here, especially for parents: even once those children come back, the parents have still been left behind by the passage of time, haven't they? So Children of Rouwen is also, as many of my works are, about the inevitable sorrow of seeing your children grow up and away from you.

When my first daughter was a few days old and I was home alone with her for the first time, I was suddenly overcome with waterfalls of tears in the middle of a diaper change because it struck me all at once that one day, she would be a teenager and she would hate me; or at the very least, one day, she would be an adult, and she wouldn't really need me anymore. This was mostly a crazy rush of weird postpartum hormones. It's not really a rational train of thought, as such.

But parenting is, for me, full of something opposite to nostalgia; I think maybe the aesthetic called mono no aware in Japanese. It's the sadness of knowing that something beautiful is ephemeral; of missing something that brings you joy before it's even gone. 


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Thematic Resonance & Wrecking Ball

I talk a lot about thematic resonance — the idea that all of the parts of a transmedia work should feel fundamentally the same in mood and tone, if not in content. If your project is a moody, serious documentary about the aftermath of a natural disaster (just for example) then adding in a cheerful web comic with an animal mascot teaching you safety and survival tips probably isn't the best approach. 

Thematic resonance is crucial. It serves to tie the pieces of your project together, to make everything feel connected. If the different elements of your work are substantially different in feeling, then the final result is going to be jarring to the audience. And it might actively work against whatever you're trying to accomplish.

The best way to illustrate this is the video for Wrecking Ball, by Miley Cyrus. Yes, I'm serious. Take a look.

Let's engage with this on a serious artistic level, all right? There's a lot going on here.  On the level of lyrics and vocal performance, this is a powerful song about heartbreak. But the impact of the song is dampened by the performer's need or desire to appear sexual in the video. On the shallowest layer, it still works — the metaphor of the sledgehammer and wrecking ball destroying a relationship is a little heavy-handed, but that's fine. Lying in the ruins of the thing you destroyed? Great imagery.

But then there's the part with the licking a sledgehammer while making eyes at the camera. The nudity could still work; there could be a metaphor there about underlying vulnerability, but it's diminished or eliminated by the, well, the writhing.

Now, I have nothing against anyone in general or Miley in specific being sexy. I'm not engaging in moral panic here. If Miley wants to be sexy, more power to her; she's an adult now. But on the level of art, the sexy stuff dilutes this specific work on an artistic level, because this song and metaphor are fundamentally not about seduction.  This results in a mixed message, with Miley singing tearfully about regret and sorrow, and then behaving visually in ways that would imply she enjoys and desires that kind of destruction. 

There is no thematic resonance between the song itself and the visual performance. The pieces simply don't fit together as if they are parts of the same work, or the opinions of the same person, and as a result, the final video is much weaker on the level of art than it should have been.

By way of comparison, Robin Skouteris has done a mashup of Wrecking Ball and Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U. 

Even ignoring the changes in the music and the addition of Sinead — this version works visually much better than the official Wrecking Ball video does, because it focuses sharply on the raw feeling of loss and despair. You know, what the song is actually about. You're not distracted from the emotion by thematic dissonance.  

And this, kids, is why thematic resonance is important. Every detail of everything you make for a single project has to support the same emotional payload. Doing otherwise makes for worse art.


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Letting Myself Go

I have begun a, how do you say, an ART PROJECT. It's called "Letting Myself Go," and it's conducted through a series of eBay auctions. The project is an examination of possession and identity -- how the things we own shape our ideas of who we are, or who we could be.

I'll be selling unused things that I've held onto long past any reasonable period, in some cases for decades. They're things that I've outgrown as a person, things that I'll never become, things that I never was in the first place.

You can follow along on Pinterest if you're interested. The first item will be going up very shortly.


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