The Tone Report
When learning a new technology, I like to drive right in and start using it without reading the manual. In part because of the challenge but also as a test to see how intuitive the interface is. Midjourney’s one of those tools you can pick up and use with very little instruction, but a little knowledge produces much better results.
I’d already experimented with name-dropping artists, materials, and styles. But adjusting the aspect ratio created the most remarkable diversity of images. The standard square box produces lots of portraits, landscapes, and abstracts. But taller ratios result in more figures, and wider radios create some actual scenes.
“woman in business suit running through traffic from left to right, wes anderson, watercolor painting”
Definitely a watercolor, and there seems to be running and suits. Men’s suits, but good on Midjourney for not seeing gender.
“a car chase in pyongyang, illustrated, pen and ink”
There’s something North Korean about this, and something like cars. The chasing is barely implied.
“the cia at work, illustrated, pen and ink, literal”
“spies by CGSociety”
CGSociety came from a lost of represented artists.
Including “spies” gave me a lot of overcoats, sunglasses, and fedoras. I had to stop using it.
Once again, Midjourney’s experimenting with gender here.
“james bond having a drink outside, by Gerald Brom, illustration”
Didn’t ask for Edwardian James Bond, but that’s what I got.
“frankenstein’s monster’s head as a robot, white background, Richard Corben, illustration”
Posing figures is a real challenge, and so is alternative anatomy. I hammered away at the AI to get a robot with a head for a torso. Unfortunately, I didn’t get close.
Artists shouldn’t worry about AI taking their job, at least not yet. Midjourney can draw, but it can’t interact. There’s no way to draft, no way to elaborate on one’s instructions, and no sending pieces back for changes. The only artists this will replace are the few who specialize in abstract landscapes reflecting little of the commissioner’s desires.
The Beta release of the ESPionage RPG is almost ready. I don’t want to distribute it as a plain Word document, nor am I prepared to commission art, considering it doesn’t have a proper layout. But, having seen some of the fantastic pieces Midjourney turned out, I figured I’d see if could grind out some placeholder art.
You feed Midjourney a prompt, and it makes an image it feels matches.
As I suspected, the products were good, but the communication left something to be desired. Midjourney is good at producing quality art, but not the art I asked for.
My first prompt: “psychics and spies red and black in saul bass style” (Saul Bass being the artist whose style I’m biting). I didn’t ask for gray aliens, but there it is.
It’s good at creating its own abstracts, but the range of abstraction is limitless. Try and point it to a target, and it rarely hits. Don’t ask me why, but I asked for “man in a dark suit with a baby for a head, photorealistic.”
Having played through the ESPionage one-shot, the players came into session zero with an idea of mechanics and the setting. The cast consists of two Card (psychics) and two Proposition Players (non-psychics). The Cards are a man with, what I call, Bruce Lee Delusion Syndrome (BLDS) and an Ordinary Girl with the power to be ignored, psychic invisibility. The Proposition Players are a former fake-psychic Con Man and a Field Agent who believes he has psychic potential. They’re agents of C.R.O.F.T. (an undefined acronym), a government agency dedicated to collecting psychotronic devices for study.
C.R.O.F.T. wants the book of cowboy poetry acquired by Rainbow Intelligence Services. The PCs can choose to jump the Rainbow agents as they exit the Bullpen (the jail for psychics), ambush them as they’re transporting the notebook back to their office, or steal it from the Rainbow office. My players opted for the third option.
Rainbow runs conventional security services in addition to engaging in psychic espionage. The first floor is filled with security guards passing in and out. At the same time, the upstairs is understaffed office space. I was using the heist or con outlines from Crimeworld. They chose con over the heist as a group with skills that lean more toward social than violence.
Rather than dive in like a crew from Blades in the Dark, the team spent a healthy amount of time researching their mark and preparing their cover identities. BLDS acquired a security guard uniform through his agency resources and milled around the first floor if things turned south. The Con Man and the Field Agent posed as agents from a fictional agency looking to jump ship. They seeded their story with a misinformation campaign about the fictional agency’s troubles. And the Ordinary Girl pulled the building’s records, acquiring floorplans and a work order for a recent safe installation.
BLDS filled his time, mildly distracting the staff downstairs. The Con Man and the Field Agent said the right words to get upstairs and occupied the staff with their offer. And the Ordinary Girl snuck in, found the safe, and found the notepad of passwords with the combination, absconding with the book of cowboy poetry and the passwords. A successful mission all around.
I wonder if it was too successful. I know Fate’s a game with lower stakes than most, but the PCs have bulldozed through the opposition on both missions. I’m comfortable with the early missions being easy while we figure things out. But I’ll creep up the difficulty incrementally throughout the campaign until I find the right balance between the protagonists and their missions.
In the meantime, I’ve got two weeks to write some cowboy poetry.
The playtest of the ESPionage, the role-playing game of psychics and spies, has begun. Based on my second novel, The Faith Machine, I’ve run one-shots at conventions with pre-generated characters before, but this is a full campaign… that opens with a one-shot with pregens.
Good adventures showcase the feel of a setting, and the potential within, without rigid definitions of form or style. A one-shot has more utility but limited scope. As a novelist, I have a greater appreciation for the longer arc of a campaign. So, I would have both, tying them together, a one-shot to give a little taste of ESPionage before it segues into the campaign. The PCs first mission will be to steal the object the pregens just stole, and the pregens transform into recurring antagonists trying to steal it back.
The Set-Up: Rainbow Intelligence Services has a problem named Mrs. Brown; one of their psychic agents has proven too powerful and impulsive to keep in play. So, the higher-ups have ordered Rainbow to bring Brown to the Bullpen, a holding facility for dangerous psychics, until they decide what to do with her.
Rainbow’s resources are already stretched thin. Losing an agent is going to hurt. Turning her in will damage morale among Rainbow’s other psychics. But there are a couple of silver linings: A Texan attorney with a lot of money and an Indian agent with some money and access to the Bullpen’s security systems. They both want a notebook of cowboy poetry rumored to be left in the Bullpen’s prisoners’ effects.
The players will turn Mrs. Brown over to the Bullpen. While inside, use the Indian agent’s biometric to access the prisoner effects. Retrieve the notebook, placing it in the hands of the Texan, one way or another.
In last month’s Tone Report, I gave y’all my outlining process on The Jade Queen, as it currently stands. Now that the road was mapped, it was time to move on to the hard part; the actual writing. I don’t like writing. I don’t like not writing. I only like having written. So the first draft is my least favorite because it’s the furthest from complete. But there’s no way around it. The only way is through.
A consideration I didn’t have with the novels is partitioning a comic into issues of 22 pages averaging 5 panels a page. There’s a lot of wiggle room there. I can throw in a few full-page panels if I come up short, or I can throw in a 9-panel grid if I’ve run long. So I decided not to worry about it too hard and through to the end and split it up into issues later.
I honestly don’t like issues and prefer to read comics collected in trades, but I understand that the marketing engine for comics still favors the floppy. So partitioning into issues is the way to go.
Once the first draft was done, I had a script with one page of about 500 panels. A challenge for even George Perez to draw. After some self-editing, I parsed the panels into pages and then split the pages into issues.
I try to end every scene with a hook. So technically, any scene could be the end of an issue, but some hooks are stronger than others, and there were three spots in the story that were clearly issue-ending moments. Unfortunately, the third issue was almost twice as long as the others. So I split it in two, rewrote the scene that ended the new #3 to give it a little more oomph, and I was good to go.
The Jade Queen is now a 5-issue limited series. But will it survive contact with the reader? Find out next month.
I attended San Diego Comic-Con Special Edition and the L.A. Comic Con on the quest for submissions editors. The convention circuit doesn’t seem to be the place to pitch anymore. Not if you’re a writer with my limited amount of renown. I’m so glad someone on the Comic Experience message board suggested I bring the pitch on a tablet instead of in print. I would have been carrying around 120 pages of useless paper instead of a marginally viable and aging Android device. But I did get one in at a publisher who will remain anonymous. If that pays off, it will have been worth it.
Plug of the Month: Walter
In last month’s Tone Report, I decided to rip off the movie Angel Heart for The Jade Queen. Talent borrows, genius steals. While I’m no genius, I am capable of theft. And I’m only stealing the twist, and moving it to the end of the first act. No one will ever know!
Of course, the hook is not a story on its own, so I opened an empty notebook and spitballed ideas into it. Just tossing every stray thought that might tie into the story for a few weeks; scenes, dialog, characters, etc.. I love this phase because I can do it while watching TV and call it working.
When I have a few pages full of ideas, the plot starts to rise between the lines. I pull all the scenes from the notebook, give them their own cards and arrange them in sequence, pictured above. The cards give me the flexibility to move scenes around, but also trash and replace them.
Once the sequence has gelled, I import the cards into Scrivener, a word processor for longer pieces. I don’t lose the flexibility of the cards, because the text in Scrivener is also arrangeable.
The Comics Experience message board’s given me some good feedback on issue #1. I’m about to upload issue #2 on the board, but you have to give 4 feedbacks for every upload and I’ve already touched on every viable document.
Here’s the current script for issue #1. Of course, no script survives contact with the editor. so please feel free to comment on the Google Doc.
Plug of the Month: The SomaFM app for Windows has made my listening experience while working so much better. The Secret Agent channel in particular is my theme music for writing thrillers like The Jade Queen.
The Jade Queen is in its second draft. An occult-thriller, graphic novel about a noir detective hired to solve the mystery of his own existence.
If that pitch sounds familiar, you probably remember Angel Heart, a story I’ve wanted to
rip off homage for decades. I won’t spoil one of the best twist endings in film, but if you know, you know. My goal is to deliver that pay-off without the creepy bits.
The second influence came while playing Mage: the Ascension, the urban fantasy game of subjective reality. My character’s place in the World of Darkness doesn’t matter. What I tacked on is what I enjoyed about playing Chet Blankenship. He wasn’t just a mage. He was a living spell. Some magician needed a mystery solved, pulled Chet from a black and white detective movie, and died before the case was solved, leaving Chet existentially stranded. Close, but not too close to Harry Angel. I got to play up all the classic detective tropes while surrounded by the supernatural.
While brainstorming plot points, I realized I was going to have multiple flashbacks to three different backstories. Too much for prose, but good for comics because in a comic, I can cheat. I can cheat by putting each flashback in a different art style. That style shift lets the reader know where the flashbacks begin and end and keep the eras straight.
Writing a book takes time. Writing a comic takes money. To pitch a comic, a writer at my level of success needs an artist on board, with at least 6 pages drawn at the very least. Colored and lettered is better. I’ve been down this road before, and it’s expensive. But this time, I have Kickstarter in mind as a plan B.
I’ve put off crowdfunding because of the mantra; You can’t Kickstart without an audience. 14 years trying to build an audience on Twitter without success, it’s now or never. I’ll still pursue the traditional path to publishing first. (I know how much work self-publishing is. The only way I can go that route is digital-only. That’s limited distribution, but it’s better than nothing.)
Next, I’m going to run this script on the Comics Experience message board for feedback. And who knows, maybe find an artist or a publisher.
Plug of the month: Resolution; a movie about a man chaining up his friend in a cabin to clean his addiction. Shot in San Diego’s East County, it’s a wonderful study in male relationships and giving up. The producers’ body of work is loosely connected. They all mention a guy named ‘Shitty Carl,’ so my wife calls it the Shitty Carliverse.
I miss blogs. I really do
My Internet Golden Age was around 2005 when everyone was on LiveJournal sharing 10 to 200 words a day. Just text, no memes because no one had free image hosting. Your posts were just your posts, not data some social media giant uses to sell you on the latest toothpaste startup.
But no one reads blogs anymore. RSS died with Google Reader. I’ve tried piping links to blog posts on social media, but Facebook and Twitter will suppress those posts to make room for more ads. I also tried using the Jetpack plugin to make the blog a mailing list with mediocre results.
I realized this blog was dead when I announced I was deleting old posts. The universal reaction was, “You had a blog?”
Thus I’m moving my outreach off this blog and social media and onto a mailing list.
While technically a step back in time to the pre-blogging era, email delivery is more reliable, and less contemptible, than social media. And y’all can subscribe to just the categories you’re interested in, so I can post without feeling like I’m spamming anyone.So if you’re one of the few still following this blog via the RSS feed or the old subscription, please resubscribe to one or more of the following lists: