Thursday, February 4, 2016

Five-Q with Josh Viola

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on the Academy Awards. To summarize my position, I believe that every award has an identity. If you want to win one, you need to find the award that has an identity that matches your own. You don't want to be the "best of the best." You should do what you love, carve out a niche, and strive to be the best version of yourself that you can be.

Today's guest is Josh Viola, a bestselling science fiction author who has mastered his niche. Not only has Josh created a popular novel series, but he has also developed unique ways to expand his brand into multiple entertainment platforms.

Josh and I talked about his award-winning novels, as well as his views on marketing and building a transmedia entertainment franchise.

Josh Viola, author of the award-winning
Bane of Yoto franchise
Aaron David Harris: The Bane of Yoto (TBOY) has won thirteen book awards. Tell us a little about the book, and why you think it connects so well with fans and critics.

Josh Viola: TBOY is a tale of two brothers from very opposite ends of the social spectrum. One is leading an underground revolt to free his people, the other is working with their captors to make his life a little easier. It's about the selfish and the selfless coming together in unexpected ways.

I think TBOY resonates with readers not because of the weird sci-fi/fantasy elements, but because of character relationships. Most notably between Yoto and Eon. It's really their story—a story about brothers. I drew from my own relationship with my brother. There are a lot of universal parallels I tried to explore on a deeper level than I ever really did in real life.

ADH: Your work branches into books, comics, music, phone apps, video games. Was it your intention to create a transmedia experience for your fans?

JV: Transmedia is the way to go, in my opinion. I have plans to expand on those concepts for future projects. I love branching out into other forms of media to tell the same story. It makes the world feel that much more real. The written word is the most important to me, but bringing in visuals, animation and music deepens the experience.

ADH: What is your approach to book promotion?

The Bane of Yoto has won a grand total
of thirteen literary awards.
JV: I have a master's degree in marketing and it's something I've done professionally for more than a decade now. I like finding new ways to rope people in. It's both fun and educational. There's a lot of risks involved and, unfortunately, too many writers and publishers prefer to play it safe. Clearly, when money is involved, you want to avoid risks. But you're never going to get very far if you aren't willing to take chances.

I've worked with some great publicists—that's key—they know the market better than anybody. I just throw my crazy ideas at them and they find a way to make it work. Whether it's finding a way to release a book soundtrack, a PlayStation 4 Dynamic Theme or an animated comic book app to promote a product, we develop a strategy to reach as many potential consumers as possible.

ADH: What creators (writers, artists, and directors) have inspired you?

JV: I love a lot of indie work, especially in film, music and comics. I'm a fan of films by Richard Kelley, Jennifer Kent, and Kim Jee-woon. Music by Celldweller, Scandroid and Blue Stahli. Comics by Ben Templesmith, Rick Remender and Scott Snyder. Books by Stephen Graham Jones, Hugh Howey and Ellen Datlow.

ADH: What advice would you give to aspiring creators, be it in writing or in art?

JV: Research. Dive into what makes content you like appealing to others. Dissect it. What works and what doesn't work? Why? Then find content you don't like and examine it from a new perspective. Learn to appreciate things you don't like. Open your eyes and find a broader perspective. Then give your project your all. Take criticism. Don't be offended. Listen to what others say and why they said it. You don't have to agree, but you can't say they're wrong. If you do, you shouldn't be in this biz.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Five Q with Lora Innes, The Dreamer

Most often the things that inspire you are things that you find unique. The whole purpose of the Five-Q series is to shine a spotlight on people with interesting stories of wonder and success.

When I finally settled on doing this as an interview series, the first person I thought of was Lora Innes, best known as the creator of The Dreamer. The long-running, critically-acclaimed webcomic falls under the genre category of historical romance, something I never thought I would be into. However, when I stumbled upon this webcomic, I was captivated by the quality of the art and the execution of the story. I was also delighted to discover that the series was made available in print by IDW Publishing.

I talked with Lora about the origins of The Dreamer, her approach to building an audience, and how her relationship with IDW came to fruition.

Lora Innes, creator of The Dreamer
Aaron David Harris: How did you go about creating The Dreamer? Tell us about the process, the research, the software you use, etc.

Lora Innes: Researching The Dreamer is ongoing process. Before the webcomic debuted, I spent eight months learning as much as I could, taking two trips to Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown to gather photo reference and immerse myself in the 18th century.  Colonial Williamsburg also has an amazing research library. I found a drawing of the Beekman Mansion greenhouse where Nathan Hale had been held prisoner. I wasn’t allowed to copy the book, but I made a sketch and used it in that scene in my comic. I like to make details like this as authentic as I can.

Using primary sources, I’ve found specific details in letters and diaries that aren’t significant enough to make it into history books. As a writer, I live for these hidden gems because they help me turn a name into a living character.

Telling the story as a webcomic made The Dreamer accessible—people interested in the characters and events I’ve written about find me pretty easily. My network has grown exponentially since I began: historians, biographers, descendants, docents, reenactors, and other like-minded history buffs make up my rolodex. These days, when I have a question about Joseph Warren, I can ask his biographer. When writing about Nathan Hale’s secret mission, I picked the brains of the team of historians I worked with on an exhibit for the Nathan Hale School House. I wrote my version of those events based the different, unique perspectives they shared with me which have never been recorded in a history book. I couldn’t have imagined having these resources (or friendships) when I started The Dreamer.

I draw The Dreamer digitally using a Cintiq touchscreen monitor that I draw directly on, using a drawing application called Sketchbook Pro. I letter the comic using Comic Life, which started out as an app to turn vacation photos into silly comic strips, but they’ve since expanded the program with professional comic creators in mind.

The Dreamer has been going strong since 2007.
ADH: You started The Dreamer in 2007. Did you anticipate the series running this long and connecting with so many people? 

LI: I imagined the story would be nine volumes long when I started, so I knew it would take awhile. I’ve since reduced it to six volumes. (None of the story points have been eliminated, I’ve just tightened up the outline to keep the pace exciting.)

I have taken several breaks from the webcomic, some for health reasons, some to pursue other endeavors. Every time it’s been a difficult decision because I want to finish the story—for my sake, and for my readers’.  I know that reading a long format story with interruptions makes it harder to retain interest.

I did not anticipate the other opportunities that would come my way because of The Dreamer, but are difficult to do in addition to The Dreamer. Sometimes I’ve passed on these opportunities, sometimes I haven’t. It’s difficult to juggle both, but on a few occasions I decided it was worth it to try.

The critically-acclaimed series found
a print publishing home at IDW.
ADH: How did your relationship with IDW happen? Did the editors come to you as a result of your webcomic’s popularity? Or did you approach them with a pitch?

LI: I met Beau Smith when I was still in art school. Beau has worked with IDW in different capacities since its early days. He was familiar with what I was doing with The Dreamer webcomic and recommended it to Ted Adams at IDW. I sent Ted a pitch, my web stats, my direction for the series, and why I thought IDW would be a good fit.

He called me and we talked and in that conversation, he began offering me everything that was on my list to ask him. I kept waiting for the catch. At the very end I asked him my one unanswered question: “What about my readers?”

I was in talks with another publisher at the time, but they had wanted me to pull the webcomic once the series was in print. This felt wrong to me—taking the comic from the people who had turned it into something a publisher would want. Ted understood that the webcomic was my main access point for growing and retaining my audience. He thought it was obvious I should continue the webcomic.

The rest is history as they say.

ADH: What is your advice on building a successful career in comics, particularly in webcomics?

LI: “Fish are friends, not food.”

Sounds silly, but it’s easy to cannibalize your readership—looking at what they can do for you, and not the other way around. Yes, as a comic creator, I want people to buy my books. But when you view your readers primarily as customers, the relationship is one sided. People hate feeling sold to. I know I do. When I venture into that realm with The Dreamer, I always feel a little slimy, not like myself.

The best way that I’ve grown my readership is by making friends. I’ve tried to pay attention to what my readers enjoy and do those things along side of them. With The Dreamer fandom, that often means silliness—from funny strips, to fan art contents, to our own set of in-jokes, to a “best comment” contest that is ongoing from week-to-week. I’ve tried to make the community a fun place to spend time.

When a beloved character in the series died, I could tell that my readers were having a genuinely hard time coping with it. So I wrote a short comic where he came back and broke the fourth wall to say goodbye to his devoted fans. It was actually therapeutic for me as well. That catharsis helped everyone move on and the comic continued on as usual after that.

I try to make my living through comics, so I do have to walk the line of selling to my readers. I don’t think I’ve figured out a perfect balance and sometimes when I get too busy, I wind up being more absent and impersonal than I like. But I do know that years of investing in your readership pay off in loyalties. People tend to stick around if they like you, not just your story.

ADH: What’s your favorite historical place/site? Why?

Colonial Williamsburg
(photo provided by Lora Innes)
LI: Colonial Williamsburg, about an hour after it closes.

Of course I love all of the programs they put on and the interaction you get with their historical interpreters (who have answered a lot of questions for me!) during their open-hours. But after-hours, most of the visitors are gone except for those having dinner at a tavern, and their faces are lit up by candle light in the windows. The horses and carriages return to their stables, and you can hear the hoofbeats on the brick streets as they go. A few costumed employees linger to close up their shops or talk to one another, deepening the illusion that you’ve gone back in time and these are the residents of the city.

I love to walk up and down Duke of Gloucester Street during twilight and imagine what it would be like to live there. It’s like having Colonial Williamsburg all to myself. I’ve gotten some of my favorite ideas for The Dreamer during these magical times. It’s as immersive of an experience as I’ve found.

I’ve visited Colonial Williamsburg at least once a year (often more) since I started The Dreamer. It continues to re-inspire and educate me. And I’m a history nerd, so it’s my perfect escape. Give me Williamsburg over Disneyland any day!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ramblings On The Oscars

It's two in the morning. I just completed a major project that took a lot of energy out of me. I have a truckload of work to do.  And in about four hours, I have to get my daughter ready for school.

Suffice to say, I don't have any business being up right now.

Yet, my fascination for what has transpired with the Academy Awards has captured me. Even before I was an author, I've always wondered what that "walk" was like. You know the walk I'm talking about. They list the nominees. Then the camera split screens, showing all of the jittering smiling nominees as the envelop opens. And then they call your name: Aaron David Harris. I've often wondered how I would react. Would I be overwhelmed when the crowd erupts? Would I trip over my foot and look like a fool in front of millions of people? And if I did, would it still be worth winning such a high honor? Would it be worth being recognized by the best entertainers in the world?

And then came the first OscarsSoWhite hashtag. I've often lamented the stereotypical roles African and African-Americans get recognition for.  However, I've often blamed black audiences for only wanting to watch TV shows and films that reenforce those stereotypes.

This year, #OscarsSoWhite has returned. I'm not entirely sure why the Oscars inspire so many diverse emotions from people. I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it all yet. The best way I can describe it is fascination. Abject curiosity. And, like everything else that I learn, I'm trying to figure out what this means for me, what this means for my career.

I've been considering the Image Awards, which is really weird because I felt that it was an institution that fosters and awards manufactured stereotypes in entertainment. Today, though, I find myself wanting to learn more about them. I want to watch the awards show next month, but I won't be able to because it's on that oddly obscure TVOne channel that I don't have. I see that they have a literature category and I'm interested in entering next year.

Now that's a big step. And with big steps, I do two things: I take to God, then I talk to my wife. She asked me "Why do you want to win awards? You never wanted to win awards."

And that was true, once upon a time. In an ideal world, the only thing that matter to me would be the people who enjoy my work. Recognition from a governing body never really appeal to me because it felt like the awards are only used to say that someone is better than someone else, which is really insipid and pointless, especially when it comes to something as subjective as entertainment (even more so with writing).

However, I don't live in an ideal world. I live in a world where anyone with a username and a password can be an author. I live in a world where millions of people are publishing stories, making movies, and producing content every day. In order for my stories to be read, in order for my voice to be heard, I need to stand out. Awards can help you do that. So I was all for submitting for the Image Awards.

But my wife asking me about winning awards and why I wanted to do it really took my back to why I write in the first place. I write because it's something I love to do. I want to share cool, Aaron Harris-style stories with an audience that would get me. I never did it seeking critical acclaim. Why should I start now?

I'm still not sure if I'm going to enter the Image Awards, but here's my final take on the Oscars:

When I was a kid, my cousins didn't like me playing their Super Nintendo or their Playstation. I used to beg. They'd say no. Sometimes I'd sneak and play any way. Then I got older and I got a job. I bought my own games. I got a job at Gamestop and bought even more games. I played them until my eyes bled and I loved every second of it.