How I got an agent

So before Movie Title Typos, I wrote novels. Plural, because I wrote two. The first I finished three or four years ago. It was about sidekicks in a world where superheroes had been wiped out. I got more than 20 rejections from agents, all with the same feedback, “You’re a good writer and we like your voice, but this won’t sell.” I was also told at least a half dozen times to turn it into a graphic novel. That had me like:

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Which, yes, fine, it would make more sense as a comic, but at the time I really wanted it to be a novel. Still, I had been to enough writing conferences to see more than a few of those mid-50s writers holding on to that one manuscript they’d written over 20 years ago, convinced it was just one more revision away from getting published. You know the type. Just this in repeat:

I didn’t want to be that, so I shelved that book and considered my time spent on it a learning experience.

Then I wrote another novel, this one a contemporary take on Aladdin. It’s set in high school, and there’s no princess, or magic carpet, and the genie is kind of an ass. I finished this one in late 2012 and started sending it out to agents.

Quick aside, I’ve been asked how I found agents and how I queried. I used agentquery.com, which would often lead me to Publisher’s Marketplace or an agency’s website, and then to a specific agent’s twitter feed or personal site. I would look for agents that represented work like mine, then I’d send out personalized queries, no more than five at a time. It’s a long process, and it can take months to hear anything back from agents, but that’s how it goes. 

I had some early readers going through my Aladdin book while I was sending it around, and one of them came back to me and told me I needed to change the perspective from third to first. That would mean rewriting the entire book. At first I was like:

But then I rewrote the first chapter and was like:

So I spent the next year or so slowly rewriting the book. Turns out it’s more than just doing a find and replace on pronouns. Every description was now coming from the main character, so if it wasn’t something he’d say, it had to be changed to fit his voice. It took a while. 

While I worked on that, life happened. I left Red Ventures, then went back three months later. I had another kid, I took a bunch of art classes online, and then there was this:

I’ve always been a writer who liked to draw, but for many, Movie Title Typos swapped my talents. People thought of me as an artist who could write, despite writing being my main profession for nearly a decade. I bring that up only because it’s still crazy to me that my first published book was a bunch of illustrated jokes, not a novel.

So I got through the book launch, finished off that novel rewrite (and totally included a link to Chronicle Books' Movie Title Typos page in my query, to show I'm a legit maker of things), and started sending it out again in October 2015. This time I was trying to be even more deliberate and picky with who I sent it to—I wanted an agent who could rep me as an author and an illustrator. Normally when people see author-illustrator they think children’s books. While I’d definitely like to do those, I didn’t want to be pinned to them. I needed someone who could rep me as a creative person, someone who could support my whole career, not just my current project. 

That’s where Allison Devereux of Wolf Literary Services comes in. I sent her a query immediately after getting a rejection from another agent (protip: when you get a rejection, immediately send out a new query, or at least start researching who you’ll send it to next. For me, it helps me move on and not take it personally. An agent has to be pumped about your book, and if they’re not, you don’t want them anyway).

Allison liked my query and my sample pages and requested the full manuscript just a day or two after the initial query. I got her request right after landing in Arkansas for a visit to my brother’s house. I got off the plane like:

I sent her the full thing on a Thursday night, then on Sunday night got an email from her. She’d bumped my book to the top of her to-read list and blew through it over the weekend. She loved it! She wanted to talk on the phone Monday morning! I did a bit of this:

Then responded all cool like:

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The next morning I borrowed my brother’s office and talked to Allison. She really did love the book! If it seems like I was surprised it’s only because the only people that had read it so far were the people who rejected it. I mean, I thought it was good…but I’m biased. Allison loved all the things I’d hoped people would love, and she also totally nailed the themes I was going for. For the first 15 or 20 minutes of our phone call she told me all the things she thought were great and I just sat there with a mixture of this:

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And this: 

Then we got to talking about her and her agency and how we might work together. As thrilled as I was to have someone pumped about my book, I needed to make sure this would be a good working relationship. 

Allison had no problem with my “do all the things” approach, in fact she said I was her favorite kind of client to have. She said the agency would be happy to help with illustration stuff if I wanted them to, they’d even help me with big contracts if I needed some assistance. This was looking pretty good, but what sealed the deal was when I asked Allison about herself and career and she told me the first book she ever sold was a book of illustrated parodies. 

Huh. Where have I seen one of those?

I told Allison I’d like to work together, and she said she’d get right to work on line edits of my novel. She said my book didn’t read like it was my first, and that most of her suggested edits would be small—no big sweeping structural changes. That’s pretty cool. 

Once I get those back and make the revisions, we’re off! Allison will send it out to editors, and hopefully we’ll get this book sold. Then I’ll have a novel AND a book of goofy illustrations on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

No big deal.

Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver, Part 8

It's a new year!

I'll be posting here more frequently in 2016. I've got a new position at work and some exciting developments in some personal projects and I'll be sharing all that stuff soon. For now, my final post about Stephen's class. 

The class has been over for months, but I figured I should share my last project. We had to design a set of characters based on traits—shy, athletic, bully, smart. Two boys, two girls.

I decided to try to fit these teens into the short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man show's style. I loved the art style and character design of that show (hat tip to Sean Galloway). It’s a style I’ve always admired, but never tried myself. If you haven't seen it, the show had super thin lines and flat colors, but everything looked really smooth and dynamic. 

Here’s what I ended up with:

I think I was mostly successful.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the feedback video for this one. I forgot to download it before the class closed. But his feedback was in line with a lot of the other things he said during the course. He pushed some of the forms a bit so they could better lean into their traits—a stronger inward hunch for the shy kid, a sassier tilt for the mean girl bully, etc.

The biggest thing I learned in this course (and this assignment was a good example of how I still struggle with it) is how to keep the energy and excitement of a sketch in the final image. Sketches are loose, kinetic, exciting. They're alive with possibility. When you start putting lines down, you tame that wildness. Tame it too much, and your drawing looks stiff and lifeless. It's not an easy thing to do, but I'm more aware of when it happens now than I ever was before.

I went to CTNX for the first time this year and got to meet a lot of art friends I know online in person, and that includes Stephen. I got to do some live drawing at his art studio with a bunch of my Oatley Academy friends. It was so cool!

Stephen has a bazillion students, both online and in person, but he remembered my art and, as I knew he would be, was super nice and friendly. He's an all around good dude, and I'm so glad I got to learn from him.

So if you're thinking about brushing up on your character design, I cannot recommend his class enough. It might be worth it alone just to watch him draw each week. Seeing character design the way he sees it has helped me be more thoughtful about the characters I create.

Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver Part 7

After a bit of a delay (things got hectic late September to early October with my book launch), we're back on track. I finished the course a few weeks ago, and overall it was fantastic. I learned a lot and I can see an improvement in my art. Totally worth it.

Here is the second to last lesson.

For this assignment we were tasked with turning a celebrity into an animal. In the lesson, Stephen turned Steve Buscemi and Sylvester Stallone into birds. The point of the exercise wasn't so much about creating a celebrity likenesses, but more about finding inspiration for character designs from real people. 

His final birds didn't look exactly like those actors, but if they were voiced by them, you'd make the link. Stephen showed us a few examples of characters that took inspiration from their famous voice actors, and the likenesses are usually pretty subtle. 

Just like with previous assignments, I wanted to challenge myself. My wife suggested I draw Kevin Hart, her favorite comedian. I figured because of his stature, I'd turn him into an otter. It wasn't easy!

First I Google image searched him.

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Then I tried to find his most defining features. What things would you need to see in an animal to connect it to Kevin Hart?

With these loose sketches and notes (and a random doodle of an otter), I was ready to take on the image. Here's what I ended up with:

Not bad! If this otter was voiced by him, I'd totally believe it. In Stephens' feedback, he agreed that this was a challenging celebrity to take on, but he made some solid suggestions that would sell the likeness even more. 

Next week I'll post the final assignment! Since the class ended, I've been going back and cleaning up some of my assignments based on Stephen's feedback. I'll cover those after I'm done with the class posts. Until then!

Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver Part 6

This week’s lesson was split up into two parts. The first part was about drawing from reference…objects. Instead of drawing from pictures or photos of people and animals, Stephen used objects around his house as inspiration for new characters. A lamp, a candle holder, and more all served as the jumping off point for new characters.

Our first assignment then was to take a picture of a random object in our house and sketch a couple characters with it. I went with my son’s sippy cup and quickly drew these three guys.

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That’s far from my best work, but I enjoyed the exercise and will definitely be doing it again when brainstorming characters. It’s just a great way to force you to think outside the box.

Part two of the lesson was about a little-known job in the animation industry called storyboard clean up. Storyboards are pulled together quickly, and the characters in them aren’t always “on brand.” The storyboard clean up artist will get a rough storyboard sketch and a reference of the character in it (in a more finished state) and is then tasked with making sure the character in the storyboard looks like it’s supposed to.

Stephen showed a few examples from The Fairly Odd Parents. One image had a dad character who was supposed to be in a boy scout uniform in the final show. Stephen was supplied with the storyboard image and a finished image of another adult character in a boy scout uniform. He took the information from that finished image and what he knew of the show’s style to clean up the pose in the storyboard and put the character in the right outfit.

Our second assignment was to clean up a rough image of an old man looking frightened. Here’s the image we were provided, both the storyboard and the reference.

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I had a tough time with this one because there was so little context. What’s the old man looking at? Is he scared of something below him? In front of him? Is it a sound that spooked him? Where is he in the scene? All I could do was guess (I asked Stephen when I turned in my assignment if that’s how the job really goes, and you hear him answer it in the video).

Here’s what I turned in:

And here’s Stephen’s feedback.

Our next assignment was to turn a celebrity into an animal. I turned Kevin Hart into an otter, which was a lot of fun. Come back next week for feedback on that one!

Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver, Part 5

This lesson was all about observation. Actually it was about drawing from reference, but the bulk of the time was spent watching Stephen watch other things and then draw them. That might sound boring to some, but I thought it was super fun.

He started with still photos, just drawing random people in random pictures. Then he moved to YouTube. The first video he pulled up was from Disney’s Sword in the Stone. He would pause the video at random moments and draw the characters on screen. Sometimes he would go for an exact likeness, other times he’d get the same pose, but change the character.

His video was sped up a bit so it looked like magic whenever he would pause and draw something amazing. I followed along, pausing his video and scribbling out my own version each time. I never stopped for more than two minutes, which forced me to try to find the essence of each image fast. The pace and variety kept it fun.

After Sword in the Stone he switched to sports. He drew some boxers and some sumo wrestlers—all from just random videos on YouTube. Again, sometimes they were exact likenesses, other times he turned them into animals or different people.

Our assignment was to draw someone from reference, which was easy enough—I just had to pick a person. I went with old school wrestler Captain Lou Albano. My 4 year old likes to watch the Super Mario Bros Super Show on Netflix. It’s a show that I loved back in the early 90s. Unfortunately it did not age well. It’s really terrible, but in a kind of great way.

So I took a screenshot of the episode where Lou Albano, who plays Mario, shows up as himself, with a bucket of chicken.

captain lou

I sketched out three iterations of Lou. The third one was my favorite (and that’s the one I turned in). You can click on these for larger versions. 

Here’s Stephen’s feedback. He didn’t have much to change, instead he offered some tips on how I could change up or iterate on my design.

I really like playing with the straight against curve style, and I’m super happy with this picture. I’m not sure it’s a style I would have explored before this class, and I’m really glad I did. Five lessons down, four more to go!