A Fistful of Lunars: Interview With Tristan Tarwater

tumblr_inline_n9marq0CrL1sc3iz7Today I interview Tristan Tarwater. Tarwater, along with illustrator Adrian Ricker, is the creative mind behind the Valley of Ten Crescents series and the upcoming Shamsee: A Fistful of Lunars, a graphic novel about unlucky rogues, conniving gangsters, and an underworld full of big plans, bigger risks and bloody consequences. The graphic novel’s Kickstarter recently hit its initial goal, and Tristan was kind enough to answer some questions about the project. So here we go!

 First off, please tell us a little about Shamsee: a Fistful of Lunars.

Shamsee: A Fistful of Lunars is a graphic novel about a bit player getting into a lot of trouble. Shamsee shows up in two of my novels, Thieves at Heart and Self-Made Scoundrel and his role in those books is as kind of a cautionary tale. Kind of, if you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a dire warning? The other characters knows he’s small time and not super trustworthy but he can be useful on occasion so people don’t get on him too hard. In this graphic novel he takes center stage, making bad decisions and connecting with other players in the criminal underworld and there’s an implication that these small actions lead to bigger events. It’s the story of a wild card trying to live their life in a much bigger world.

Where did you get the idea for this project?

Well, I’ve always wanted to do a comic, truth be told. I got the idea kind of from my Spouse, who swears The Valley of Ten Crescents is about Shamsee, which it isn’t, though he will come back, ha! I wanted to do something a bit more light hearted and I thought Shamsee would be a great character for a comic and of course, he’d wind up owing someone money. It kind of spiraled out from there.

What do you think sets Fistful of Lunars apart?

On the story side, it’s the tale of a normal person trying to go about their business while stuff falls apart around them. A lot of fiction is centered around the major players, the people in charge, trying to change the world or the system and meanwhile, there are a lot of people in the background, trying to get to work, buying things for dinner, needing to unwind with friends and trying to find time, paying their bills.

There’s a very natural kind of feedback, where the actions of both groups of people actually do affect others, but its not always recognized. Shamsee is a normal person, albeit with no profession to speak of, and like a lot of people strapped for cash, he’s thinking about today only. A lot of people are looking towards the horizon and the long game and he’s flailing along at the edge of their sight, ruining their view of the sunset but he doesn’t realize it. Shamsee’s main concern is, aaah, I need to get this money! Small time players in a world where big things happen is a theme of Ten Crescents, really. A Fistful of Lunars is a lot funnier than the books though. He’s not even an anti-hero, he’s that guy you know who just can’t get his life together in spades that you keep around for a laugh.

On the more technical side, Fistful of Lunars is a graphic novel tied to a set of novels, written by the author, which isn’t super common. In addition, everything is released under Creative Commons, which basically means feel free to remix and reuse, as long as you attribute and don’t sell it. Because, why not?

tumblr_n9ngyvi4D51tw32kho1_500Up until now, you’ve been (as far as I know) a novel writer. Why Shamsee, and why a graphic novel?

As I’ve said, I’ve always wanted to do a comic and I think Shamsee lends itself a bit more to the visual humor you can get with a graphic novel. Not being able to draw is probably the main reason I held off so long. I had a few ideas for other comics but Shamsee’s just very funny and the dialogue came very naturally, for him and the other characters. Thieves at Heart and Self Made Scoundrel are about thieves who know what they’re doing and use their skills to do all sorts of things and Shamsee is just the dregs, as Derk would put it. But even the dregs have to get stuff done. Shamsee’s a hoot. I wouldn’t trust him with a bag of air but he’s fun to write. I wrote almost entire first draft of the script in one sitting while living in California and when I met Adrian and saw his portfolio I thought, this is the guy, he’s so good at world building visually and his figures are excellent. I asked him and luckily for me, he said yes.

How did you and Adrian Ricker begin working together?

Ha, so this is kind of a funny story. Back in the day, my spouse and I used to do property management and Adrian and his partner, Michelle Nguyen, who is also a super talented illustrator, lived in one of the apartments. My spouse was more aware of them than I was, because I’d just had our kid and worked part time and didn’t interact with the residents as much as he did. Anyway, fastforward a bunch of years later, we were at Stumptown Comics Festival after moving back to Portland in 2013 and we ran into Adrian. We wound up talking and buying some of his art (he has a rad illustration of Daenerys from GoT that I had to get) and I had the script already and was like, maybe I’ll ask Adrian if he wants to do this? Maybe he’d dig it? And luckily he said yes.

The Fistful of Lunars Kickstarter funded very fast! What’s it been like to get that kind of support?

I have gifs that would be appropriate to answer this, ha! But the short version: very exciting and also nerve wracking! Always, with any kind of project, that’s basically my feeling. It’s exciting to know at this point, 66 people think Shamsee is a good idea, want to read this, want to be IN this, since we offered being drawn into a comic as our reward, shared it because they thought it sounded cool. Knowing Adrian and I had that much reach was kind of affirming too. It’s kind of a weird, industry thing to say but it’s true, I’ve been working on stuff in Ten Crescents since 2009, I’ve got a group of fans who love Ten Crescents and I love them for reading, for imagining with me, and for their support. It means a lot, and those people are always the first backers, and they’re lovely. If they didn’t care, I wouldn’t make stuff for them, I’d have to move on from something I love and that’d be super sad.

It’s also nerve wracking because I mean, it’s a Kickstarter! And it’s not over, there’s still a lot to do just to keep it on people’s minds and get it seen and all the while worrying something will get messed up, waiting for the proof to arrive, hoping to make the stretch goals. So there’s a security in funding so quickly but the clock’s still ticking, I have to make sure those numbers keep going up! I owe it to myself and everyone who has already backed and supported us!

Did you face any challenges due to the success of the Kickstarter?

I know after we funded SO quickly, we were kind of staring at each other, thinking, did we mess up somewhere, should we have set the goal higher? We’ve crunched the numbers more than a few times, so I think we’re okay. Our big challenge will be getting all the rewards out before GeekGirlCon but that shouldn’t be an issue. We’re pretty sure we timed it all right.

tumblr_n9mc6qx2Rd1tw32kho1_500How does writing a graphic novel differ from writing a text novel?

For me, writing a graphic novel is different because I generally start a comic just writing all the dialog. It’s dialog driven, I write what I think everyone would say, then I go back, fill in who is talking to who, what’s in the scene, what the scene is, the shots. As it gets the art put in, I pare down the dialog because with the visual medium, a lot more can be unsaid so the final wordcount of the draft versus the finished comic is different. When I write a novel, I think about what’s going to be said but I have to paint the scene and the situation myself.

Also, obviously, since I can’t draw for crap, I’m writing for Adrian. Working with someone is super interesting. You have to worry about someone else getting sick of the project, hahaha!

Would you say it’s easier or more difficult?

I’d say easier, at least on my end; just in terms of scope of work, my job is to break out GoogleDocs and go, he said, she said, they said, make sure this person is wearing a scarf, etc. For Adrian though, it’s a lot of work. The volume of work is just greater, illustrating, coloring and lettering a comic. It takes hours, each page, regardless of ten words being said or a hundred. So even though it took me a few days to get the first draft of the script done, edited and all that, it’s taken a year to get it all on paper. Drawing takes a LOT of time and it’s 105 pages.

What is your process with the artist Adrian Ricker like?

I get the script ready and it’s usually in Drive so I can just shoot him the link. He looks it over and does thumbnails so we can get the flow and the composition of the comic down. Then he inks it, which is just the lines, just to make sure it all still works out, the way the story is acted out, what is shown and what isn’t. After those all are squared away, he colors it and letters it and I look it over for inconsistencies, typos, more superfluous language. It’s a lot of back and forth. This is my first comic and there’s probably a better way to do it but that’s how we did this one!

At the beginning of the project I give him the script but I also give him character write ups with images to go over what everyone looks like, what they’re wearing, why. If the character is influenced by an actor/character in media, I’ll send a video of them so he can get feel for their mannerisms. I also send photos of buildings, religious iconography, landscapes, anything that might come up, or something that sets the mood. I feel kind of bad, dumping a pile of images in his lap, but it helps in the end. Communication is a big deal when you’re collaborating with someone, to say the least.

What’s next after Fistful of Lunars? Are you and Adrian planning any projects for the future?

Oh jeez, so much more. I’ve planned Shamsee to be a series of five graphic novels. Adrian said he’s down, luckily. I haven’t scared him off yet! That makes me happy. The next comic should be done in about a year as well. It’s tentatively titled, ‘Lone Idiot and Cub,’ to give you an idea as to what may be happening.

Do you plan to write any more novels in the Valley of Ten Crescents world?

Yep! I’ve got the extremely rough first draft of the manuscript for the next book sitting in my file manager, waiting for me to get to it. I’ve got so many projects I want to do, books, short stories, graphic novels, webcomics, rpg stuff. I feel really lucky that I get to work on so many things with so many great people. Seriously. I am in the company of so many exceedingly talented people. It blows me away.

Nanowrimo Comic #1: The Casualties Were Substantial

Tracy McCusker of Dusty Journal has kindly offered to illustrate a comic for the month of November, highlighting the joys and trials of National Novel Writing Month. Check back for more installments throughout November. And! If you’re looking for an illustrator for your Nano novel, check out Tracy’s portfolio of awesome illustration work. She does terrific work at a great rate, and I say that as a happy client.

Click for full-size version.

On Writing Strong (Female) Characters

Every once in a while, the question makes its way around the writing circles: how to write strong female characters?

Well, I’m a guy, so I probably shouldn’t be the first person you ask. In fact, definitely not. But, because I’m a guy, here comes my opinion anyway. (Right away with the gender stereotypes — buckle up!)

Often, some wiseacre will reference the acidic, sexist crack from Jack Nicholson’s character from the movie As Good As It Gets: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” This is best used ironically, or not at all, as it’s not really constructive. It’s also wildly sexist. So there’s your example of What Not to Do, I guess.

Also on the list of smartass responses is this comic strip by Kate Beaton, which takes a swing at the tropes some writers seem to think make female characters strong, but actually really don’t. (I particularly like the lengthy justification of the boob armor, which I’ve seen in many an online argument about revealing superhero costumes.)


If you look at your typical urban fantasy cover, the answer seems to be “crop top, big knife, and tattoos.” This is a pretty hoary complaint by this time, and I feel a little self-conscious even making it, but seriously, show me a bad-ass vampire hunter with her midriff covered, and, well… I’ll be mildly surprised. Not that this is a bad thing in itself, beyond being something of a cliché at this point. But it does seem to reinforce the idea that “violence = strength.” Not that I mind ass-kicking characters, but groin-punching is a behavior, not a personality trait. The most iconic modern-fantasy female of them all, Buffy Summers, much more going for her than just beating monsters senseless.

The question’s also been kicking around the blogosphere recently. Oh, I just said blogosphere. I’m sorry. Anyway, for example, “The Fantasy Feminist” by Fantasy Faction (say that five times fast), points out some of the most common gaffes in writing female characters:

These issues are, at their core, character issues. The problem isn’t the warrior or promiscuous personality in itself; rather, it’s the idea that to be a strong character, a woman must act like a man or shun feminine things or use her body to manipulate people or some other misconception. And even then, it’s really only a problem if the writer believes that the character must act that way to be strong. If the character believes it, then the writer has taken a first step toward creating a multi-layered person.

Michel Vaillancourt, author of The Sauder Diaries: By Any Other Name, relates how he carefully researched and constructed his female characters. Vaillancourt sums up the problem neatly: “Within our North American pop culture, we have built a mystic divide between the principle genders.” What’s most interesting about this post is the mixed reaction Vaillancourt got from female readers  — proving that there is no One True Way when it comes to writing characters, nor should there be.

My favorite answer to this question, however, came from a recent Google+ thread in which a writer asked, “how do you write female characters?” and someone answered:

1) I think of a character.
2) I make them female.

I love this answer, because I think it gets to the heart of the issue: gender plays very little part in what makes a good or strong character. So why start with gender at all?

What It Takes

So what does it take to make a (female) character tick?

1) Agency. The character makes things happen. They move the plot forward. They make choices — even if they are bad ones — that propel the story. They make a difference. They do not wait for the story to happen to them. They do not wait to be rescued. They do not let somebody else handle the hard stuff. If your character is sitting around the house gnawing their knuckles and hoping everything will work out okay, you need to punt them into the middle of the action.

2) Relatability. A character doesn’t have to be likeable, but they do need to have distinct goals and desires  — in short, the things that make us human. Female characters in particular seem prone to fall outside these boundaries — they’re presented as mysterious, otherworldly creatures, their actions random and without reason — basically, all the worst parts of some stand-up comic’s outdated “women want the toilet seat down” routine.

If you’re putting this kind of thing in your writing, please, for all our sakes, knock it off. Women aren’t magical creatures from another planet. Stop writing them like that. Give them human hopes, fears, and motivations. It’s not that hard. A female character shouldn’t be measured by her sexuality, or the cut of her clothing, or how many people she can wheel-kick in sixty seconds to prove she doesn’t need a man. Violence doesn’t make a character strong. Neither does sex. Not by themselves, anyway.

3) Integrity. Look at the list of characters in your latest work. Describe each character in a single, short sentence. If the words “love interest” appear anywhere in that sentence, chances are your character is a bit crap. Look, it’s nothing personal. I’m guilty of this. I’ve created the character who exists only to be dated, desired, or unceremoniously boinked. Is there a place for such characters in a story? Maybe — if, as Michel Vaillancourt says, they’re strictly a plot device. But you could probably do better. If your character’s sole motivation is to be someone’s girlfriend, you can’t pretend they’re well-rounded and still keep a straight face.

Characters must also have integrity of motivation — not from stereotypical gender expectations. A common example of this is Ripley going back to save the cat in Alien. I’ll be the first one to say that while Ripley in Aliens is a great example of doing a female character right, the first Alien drops the ball in a few places. Do you think Hudson or Hicks or one of the other badass space marines would have gone back for the cat? Yeah, me neither. Chances are they wouldn’t strip down to their underwear in the final reel either, but whatever. My point is, characters should make decisions based on their character — it doesn’t matter if they’re bad decisions, so long as the reasoning isn’t “well, she’s a woman and women are so crazy so she did the crazy thing.”

Is That All?

Well, no.  Because I won’t pretend for one second that there’s one true formula for writing characters of any gender. People are different. And, like it or not, while men and women might not be from other planets, they’re not identical either. They process emotions differently. They’re shaped by different societal forces.

There’s a danger in writing against stereotypes without going deeper than just defying the stereotype. A female character can ask her boyfriend to open the pickle jar, or hate taking out the trash, or follow her intuition when her brain is telling her a different story. That doesn’t magically make a character weak. What makes them weak is defining them only by that sort of thing. But take that too far in the other direction, and you may end up with a bunch of stereotypical male traits… the proverbial “man with breasts.” You’ve essentially traded one set of cliches for another at that point.

So, as usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The most memorable female protagonists (the ones that come up constantly in conversations like these: Buffy, Ripley, etc.) show us that they can feel terror and charge into peril anyway. That they can love, or grieve over love lost, without pining forever in their room. That they can hold their own without being invincible.

“Strong” does not mean “flawless,” because invulnerable people with no weaknesses are the most boring characters imaginable. There’s a big difference between characters flaws and a character who’s just written poorly. To quote from the blog 42nd Wave Feminist:

I think many of Mr. Whedon’s critics think that because he is a professed feminist who supports Equality Now and has been honored by them, and because he enjoys writing strong female characters, that somehow every female character he writes should fit some sort of feminist ideal. I think that’s a ridiculous expectation and would most likely result in colossally boring television.

This is a complicated issue, and I could probably go on for several more paragraphs, but I’m not going to. In short, if you want to write good characters, then start with character — not with gender. Write human beings, not stereotypes or sex object. It’s not rocket science.

Your turn. Tell me your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.

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[Flash Fiction] The Darkest Part of the Wood

This is a piece for Anna Meade’s flash fiction contest at Yearning for Wonderland. With apologies to Tracy McCusker, who’s heard this idea somewhere before.

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They’d brought her to the country to heal. The fresh air will do you good, they’d said. As if the creaking house and smell of rotting October leaves would somehow undo the slow cellular unraveling inside her. As if she’d ever be allowed outside in the cold autumn rain.

Here was her life. A beachhead of pillows above shoals of white sheets, armies of prescription bottles standing sentry, favorite books stacked in a hopeless fortress against boredom. The distant murmurs of her parents, in some parallel universe where people were healthy.

Rest, and get well.

Then one night she saw the goblinoid shadow, rendered by moonlight, flicker across her bed. The skittering of tiny feet on the roof.

She’d hid under the covers, quivering in terror. In the morning, she’d found a tiny doll. Knots of pale yarn, raisins for eyes, a blank idiot smile stitched across its face. A dry topknot of hair. Her hair.

It liked her.

So she waited. When her parents brought her cookies, she saved one for it. When she saw its shadow in the corner, she begged it to speak. But it never did.

Not until one rain-sheeted midnight when she felt bony fingers take her hand, and woke to see pale yellow eyes glimmering in the dark.

Come home.

It held her hand and beckoned her to follow. Down the stairs in her bare feet, out into the cold wet grass and cold rain and the fresh air her parents had wanted her to have. It whispered of adventures.

She was so happy she barely noticed the first rasping cough that shook her as she followed her friend into the thorny darkness of the wood.

Come home with us, it said. Wither, and live forever.

Sicken, and be healed.

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