Anatomy of a character

If you’ve ever been in one of my workshops, then you know that I like to teach writing through drawing. It’s just the way my own coconut is wired—see, I find it nearly impossible to design a character without drawing it first. I don’t know what that says about my capabilities as a writer, but when it comes to teaching writing, it seems to me that starting with a drawing is a good place for most students.

Here’s a sketch of my own character, Prince Peryton, which I exhumed from the archives for the third Kendra book, The Shard from Greeve. This was just a brainstorming sketch, a way for me to generate ideas for the story. In fact, if you know this story at all, you’ll be able to see that some of the labels on this diagram are wrong.

Peryton sketch

Or at least they seem wrong. These notes just represent the ideas I had at the time. Once I was into writing the story, I made changes, not only to the look of the character, but to his back story as well. Visually, I didn’t want him to be quite so shaggy and heavy—he needed to be younger, and more spry. In terms of his story, I originally thought that Kendra would meet the peryton in the dungeons of that vile chicken-lizard, Queen Krake. But I eventually decided that he needed to come into the story much earlier; thus a lot of the peryton’s suffering comes at the hands of a crew of pirates, and not that nasty Queen.

Well, I always find it a challenge to get my students to indulge in a brainstorming exercise. I think most of them just want to get right to the story. Why fiddle with a drawing when it’s not going to be used? Right?


Ideas don’t blossom without a little nurturing. So I really encourage my students to work on a brainstorming sheet. They aren’t even allowed to erase! (Scratching out is okay.) For me, there is a distinction between drawing and illustrating. So what I want them to do on the brainstorming sheet is to draw and doodle, generating and recording ideas. Then, afterward, they can write their story and—if they choose—produce a polished piece of artwork.

This approach doesn’t always work with every student, but I think I’m getting better at leading this activity, because the outputs are improving. Just check out this great brainstorming sheet (and the subsequent piece of highly-polished artwork) by my student, Sue. The accompanying story was just as marvellous—all a result of the time she invested in crafting  a strong foundation for her character.

Sue's brainstorming sheet

Sue's Hero.


Picture versus Words: Happy Marriage or Epic Battle?

I just went and saw Scott Westerfeld speak last week. He’s the author of Leviathan, Behemeth, Uglies and many other books. Many fans showed up in full steampunk costume (such as my friend, Sarah, who’s pictured below with the author and me). As you can see, I did NOT dress up. My excuse is that I haven’t read any of Westerfeld’s books yet—but after hearing him speak, I will.

Sarah, Scott Westerfeld, and me.

I found the presentation very engaging, especially since Westerfeld talked about the relationship between words and picture in books, and how his process of working with illustrator Keith Thompson was so instrumental in the creation of the Leviathan trilogy. He would write a section of the book and send it off to Thompson, who would then illustrate the various scenes. The words informed the illustrations, but sometimes the pictures turned out totally different than how the author imagined. Sometimes this was a good thing, sometimes a bad thing and Westerfeld would send Thomspon back to the drawing board.

Of course, I couldn’t help to think about my own process. Being my own illustrator, I work slightly differently with my author self. First of all, I do realize that I have two different parts to my brain; my illustrator side does not always agree with the author side. Sometimes I have a picture in my head of what a character or place looks like when I write it—but then, when I go to draw that character or place, it turns out totally different. And then I have to go back and change the words. Or sometimes I have to change the picture. It just depends on which part of my brain wins the argument of what is the best for the overall story.

I remember when I was designing one of the key locations in my book: The Elder Stone. As you can see in the illustration below, I at first decided that this place would be called “The Hall of Elders” and that it would be quite palatial. It had one singular tall spire, with balconies and windows, and even a flag at the top. As I recall, in this instance, the picture came before my words.

Elder Stone concept.

Then, as the story evolved, I realized that the Eens weren’t really the type to have castles and such. They were more humble, more secretive. So I had to rethink this “Hall.” So, my words forced me to go back and change the picture, and I ended up with this squat, rock-like structure known as the Elder Stone . . .

Elder Stone

Marching to the Elder Stone

I show the concept picture to kids all the time, and I think some of them like the idea of the palace a bit better. But I know it just doesn’t fit the Eens.

Well, you will get to see more of the Elder Stone in Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack of Kazah—it plays a very important part. And, in fact, you’ll even get some idea of how the Elder Stone came to be! Stay tuned . . .

Old enemies made young

Burdock BrownA few weeks ago, I posted a picture of Uncle Griffinskitch in his younger days, and today I’ve decided to post a youthful picture of another character. This time it’s that villain my readers just seem to love to hate: Burdock Brown.

As you can see, Burdock was not only a lot taller when he was forty years young, but he had a great deal more hair. He still loved his fancy clothes though; Burdock shuns the traditional attire of an Een wizard (humble robes and capes) for bright colours and fancy buttons. In short, he’s just pompous.

One of the most joyful parts about writing Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah is that it has allowed me to explore in detail the past of some of the most renown characters in the Land of Een. Drawing these characters has also been a great deal of fun. Of course, when I first wrote Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers and conceived of these characters, I never anticipated that I would have to one day imagine what they looked like when they were  younger!

Burdock BrownI’m not sure if I have a need to draw any of the other characters when they were younger. Perhaps Winter Woodsong would be a fun one to de-age. I’ll keep you posted . . .

In the meantime, let me know what you think of the youthful Burdock! Do you think he has grown more or less villainous with age?

All Stitched Up: Authors Like Us

Authors Like UsThe latest episode of Authors Like Us is posted; this time our guest, Barbara Haworth-Attard, kept James and I in fits of laughter as she discussed her approach to writing, golf, and—most delightfully—quilting.

Barbara is one of those people that tells just one story after another, so listen carefully to see if you can keep up with Barbara Haworth-Attardher. I’m not sure if all her tangents made it into the final cut of the interview, but we had a great conversation about cursing!

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes, or visit the episode page by clicking here.

During this conversation I was reminded of the quilt my mom made for me when I was a kid. Obviously, it was a Star Wars quilt. So I ran home to dig it out and photograph it.

Pretty awesome, don’t you think?

Star Wars Quilt

And the winner is . . .

Facing Fire by kc dyerA few weeks ago, I had a guest blog from fellow author kc dyer and she announced give-aways. Well, the person on this blog who wins his own free copy of kc’s new book, Facing Fire, is Rory!

Rory never fails to comment on my posts, it seems, plus he’s produced some wonderful renditions of Kendra Kandlestar characters. Keep it comin’, Rory! And your copy of Facing Fire is in the post! We hope for  a review on kc’s blog when you’re done!

The Pen is mightier than the Lightsaber

The Strange Case of Origami YodaAnyone who knows me at all knows that I am a huge Star Wars fan. So it was with great delight that I discovered the middle-grade book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.

I actually received a Advanced Reader Copy of this book way back in February from my friend Kallie George who managed to procure it while attending a conference in Boston. As soon as she saw it, she knew I had to have it. And she was right!

Well, I always like to think there is a lot of Yoda in some of my characters. Uncle Griffinskitch and Winter Woodsong in particular seem to channel the Force. And there’s a new character in Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah who is particularly Yoda-like too.

Uncle Griffinskitch teaches Kendra Kandlestar

Well, there was no doubt in mind that I had to incorporate The Strange Case of Origami Yoda in my writing workshops. I’m pleased to say that it has been a big hit with my students, whether they are fans of Star Wars or not (though between you and me, I think I’ve had some converts).

And, one of the best things about this book is that it includes instructions for how to make your very own Origami Yoda! Check out these creations out from my students, some complete with pencil or pen lightsabers.

Origami Yoda

Origami Yoda

Origami Yoda

Awesome, they are!

Of course, if I had any mechanical ability at all, I would attempt to construct a Kendra Kandlestar origami figure. But I think I’ll leave that up to all of you Wiz Kids out there. If you make one, photograph it and send it to me so I can post it! Remember: do it, or do not—there is no try.

Authors Like Us presents Susin Nielsen

Authors Like UsJames and I really geek it up in the latest episode of Authors Like Us–and it’s appropriate, since we are interviewing Susin Nielsen, author of Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom. But we did let Susin get a few words in, so take a listen to hear her pontificate on the difference between writing for picture books, YA, and TV. She managed to survive our interview—and so will you if you give it a listen!

You can listen to the episode on iTunes, or by visiting the episode page on our website.

Susin Nielsen

Kendra comes to life

Last week I mentioned a wonderful photo I had received of a young fan who had decided to go as Kendra Kandlestar for Halloween. I am biased, of course, but I think Kendra and all seven of her crazy braids makes for a superb costume. So, here’s Amika in full Kendra gear. It’s pretty amazing!

Kendra Kandlestar Costume

In other holiday-style news, I’ve been working on my annual Kendra Kandlestar Christmas card. Even though it hardly feels like the right season, I have to get it done and printed in time. I’ll post my design when I’m done, and perhaps show examples from past years too!

This is why you shouldn’t drink your magic potion

Magic Potions Class.Even though my magic potions class is all about using the five senses, I always warn my students not to drink their concoctions. Sure, they can smell, see, hear, and even touch their elixirs with a spoon—but drinking potions is never a good idea. After all, who knows what effect will result from brewing Elf bones, Pixie juice, dragon urine, Gnome poop, mummy dust, burning acid, and eyes of newt?

Just witness my ever-cheerful student, Matthew—before and after.

Matthew BEFORE.

Matthew After.

Sadly, it’s not a staged photo.  But don’t be alarmed. He only writhed on the floor for five minutes, before his nausea ebbed. In other good magic-potion-related new, there were only THREE explosions this time. (If you’re going to over do it on the mummy dust, explosions are, sadly, just a fact of life.)

Magic Potion Explosion.

Magic Potion Class

A Mischief of Mice

Costume a character

It was such a busy week last week that I didn’t have time to blink. See, I spent the entire week at Morgan Elementary in Surrey, BC, working as a writer-in-residence.

What a week! Working with the teachers, I taught workshops to every student from Kindergarten to Grade 7! For the older kids I taught a variety of classes on crafting characters and building kingdoms through designing maps and writing proclamations.


Heroic character

For the younger kids I delivered my tried-and-true “Costume a Character” workshop. In this class the kids get to “costume” three little mice, after which they write a story explaining what happened in their characters’ lives to cause them to have to change into the three different costumes.

This mouse workshop never ceases to delight me. I am always treated to some new and delightful costumes. My favourite this week? By far, it was poet mouse, crafted by an imaginative student in Grade 3. She even had a delightful poem (all about cheese, of course) that was sang out by her poetic and whiskery little fellow.

Poet Mouse.

In addition to this busy week, I also met Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games) this week. She came to Vancouver and, despite being exhausted from ten hours of workshopping, my friend Kallie George and I rushed to meet her. We sneaked in just at the tail-end of the event! Notice the brace on her hand; the sign of a busy author!

Suzanne Collins.