My Writing Process 7: K-Mart Reality

Yes that’s a real term, and no I didn’t make it up.

K-Mart Reality is a funny term for something we all know very well: the inclusion of real-world name brands and products into your fictional setting to make your world more believable.

Nowadays people look at this stuff in movies and yell “product placement!” But I usually think these people are conspiracy nuts. While I know that product placement does clearly exist, sometimes it’s just the writers / set designers trying to make their story more real. Pepsi is everywhere, ergo if your world is noticeably devoid of Pepsi, is would seem weird.

**A note on the conspiracy nuts: I’ve actually had one claim that I got funding from Coke because I often mention that the girls of Coral Beach like drinking Cherry Coke… What the heck is wrong with these people?**

Regardless, K-Mart Realism is a good thing. It can suck your reader into a story and make your story real, and I employ it more and more.

Beyond that, using substitutes for real-world products can be very jarring and distracting for the reader. We’ve all read those futuristic novels set in the year 3000 where the characters are eating at an obvious McDonalds resteraunt that the author refuses to call McDonalds, and it just becomes irritating. Just call it McDonalds, you hippie. I can almost guarantee you that if fast food still exists in 3000 AD, so will McDonalds.

But I’m guilty of this myself, to a degree. When I first started publishing books in 2007 I was worried that if I mentioned certain products a giant lawyer foot would descend from the heavens and smash Engen Books to bits. But that’s just not the way it works. Like with product placement, retailers like getting their products out there.

Two examples: In the first Black Womb novel, Xander and Mike seem to be obsessed with a game called Marble Mutant Warriors… And just about every 20-something man out there understood that this was the Marvel Superheroes arcade game. I was worried Marvel would be pissed… But why would they have been? I’m showing people loving their games and characters.

Another example is in Roulette. Mandy Peterson is trying to get the gang to go to a movie. The movie playing is a triple feature, all three Defense Command movies.

2231: Mars against Empire, 2010, Kenneth Tam
2231: Mars against Empire, by my good friend Kenneth Tam.

Now, this is both a cover-up and a nod to my friend and college, Kenneth Tam. He writes a series of fictional memoirs called the Defense Command series, and even within the series, the events happening have been made into movies. So I thought that would be a fun nod. However it came from my not wanting to mention the Terminator franchise. That’s why she says the third movie sucks. Because Rise of the Machines sucked.

So anyway, this is my plea to you all that K-Mart reality is a good thing. Honestly and for true. Get out there and use it to make your world a more believable place, because if we buy into your world, any other madness you throw at us will be accepted.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew


History of Black Womb 2

Black Womb - Kevin Kendall
Black Womb, drawn by the always masterful Kevin Kendall

Okay, so when we left off last time I’d just started plotting Black Womb (the character). At this point though, he was still just one character in a sea of characters I’d created. Then, like now, I’d had a deep-seated desire to be my own mini-version of Stan Lee, so I “canceled” Alexis Temple’s series at issue 100 and branched off into two or three separate series’ I started plotting right from issue one. So, one of these was Black Womb… Right?

No. Well, yes and no. It’s complicated. In my writing panels (both virtual and otherwise) I preach the need to keep an open mind about your characters. That maybe if you’re having trouble writing about some person or event that you just haven’t found your character.

Or maybe you have and you just haven’t realized it yet.

Originally there were lots of characters in my plot. I mean, a lot. Like thirty. And there was nothing to really distinguish Black Womb from the rest, except his personality. His personality was largely intact.


And now we get to the point everyone’s been waiting for: the explanation of the character’s appearance. And I know that every comic fan-boy ever is screaming “Venom, it’s a Venom ripoff” at the top of their lungs, but let’s take a look at the way Black Womb was originally presented:

He was a man who donned a black suit with slanted blue eyes that had claws and the ability to teleport from one fixed destination to the next via localized black holes that he creates himself. He got this power from an experiment involving black holes that went awry, resulting in the creation of the suit. So yes, he was initially inspired by a Spider-Man villain:

The Spot
The Spot, as he appeared on Spider-Man the Animated Series

The Spot, from Spider-Man: the Animated Series

I’m not kidding.


Further inspiration came from multiple sources. And I do mean multiple. The slanted-eyes look I eventually adopted was inspired not by Spidey/Venom, but an indie comic called Grendel. I actually put a homage to that fact in the first book, in the character of Julian Grendel, so I’m honestly very surprised when nay-sayers don’t get the connection. It’s called Google, people. Look it up.

That said, I’ve never read an issue of Grendel. But I did read the novel Past Prime, which featured illustrations by Wagner and those wonderful slanty-eyes, in the same black-and-white style I would later adopt.

The Black Man
The Black Man

Other inspiration came from recurring nightmares I had as a child, the black man dreams. For those unfamiliar there’s a great discovery channel program on it, but basically its a form of Hag-dream where one is attacked by a shadow-man, or a man made of shadows. I had these hideous night-terrors up until the point I started writing Black Womb, and attribute the writing to my taking control of this particular demon. Ignoring that though, these two factors combined to create the look and feel of Black Womb.

So, I went on plotting my major/minor superhero epic. In these days the Womb had a much gruffer personality, and I had fun hinting that the reason for this was a troubled past, but never revealed it. Also around this time I started to realize I had made him too powerful, and kept running into the “Superman problem” where the character cannot easily be beaten. So I took a page out of DC’s handbook and retconned the character into something more akin to the version we see today.


Around this time Marvel published a very important series called Origin that controversially chronicled the true origin of Wolverine. At the same time, the tv series Smallville was starting to make it big, so there was a lot of superheroes getting their origins told. Taking this into account, I plotted a flashback miniseries that told the origin of Black Womb when he was still in high school.

And there it was. A month or so later, for reasons I can’t explain, I sat down at my desk and started to write a story, rather than just plotting one. I chose the origin story, because I’d liked it. I thought it was fun.

The intention was to only write that one and then skip ahead to the other plotted stories, but I never did. This was it. This was what I was doing now. The plotting stopped, and the writing began again.

I was now writing Black Womb.

To be continued… 😉

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

Compendium goes international

Compendium (Ellen Curtis)Engen Books continues it’s winning streak with it’s international titles by re-releasing it’s most international collection, Compendium.

First released in 2009 at the first West Coast Con, Ellen Curtis’ breakout title Compendium broke Engen sales records for both Chapters and in-person sales in it’s first week, records that remained in place until the release of Ellen’s debut novel, Infinity.

Compendium features three stories by Curtis: The Tourniquet Revival, At Midnight the Dawn and Falling into Fire, and features Engen’s most international cast, with characters from Europe, America, and beyond.

The usage of descriptions [in Compendium] really pulled me into the settings. I think atmospheric would be an appropriate adjective. All well written stories trigger the senses, but sometimes it takes a few pages or even chapters before the brain is able to create a world based around the information provided… In Compendium I found after a few paragraphs I had been whisked away to [other] worlds. – Jay Paulin

Reedited and redesigned, Compendium is ready for it’s upcoming re-release. It will be available on Amazon in early November, but entertains it’s official launch at Hal Con 2, November 13 and 14, 2011.

Character Development 2: Extraneous People

This one will be short, I think. I’m not sure if it should go under Common Mistakes or not, but I’m putting it here.

I’ll get right to the point: look at the characters you’ve created. All of them. Pay particular attention to the secondary and tertiary characters. If you have two characters that provide the same function, one of them has to go.

It’s that simple. Let’s say your main character has two best friends who stick by him no matter what. They have the same skills, roughly the same attitude, and neither betrays him. That should be one character.

The MatrixJust look at all the nameless yahoos who died in the first Matrix movie. That all should have been one character. I’m sure you can think of a lot of movies where multiple characters seem flat all at once (a lot of fantasy movies / books are guilty of this. If a hero leaves with a team of 12, only 6 get developed… So why weren’t the extra 6 exited out in the second draft?)

Another topic in this same vein is: if you have a secondary character that steals the show, get rid of them.

This is onl y true of single-lead stories. But if your lead character is constantly getting upstaged by a secondary one, that’s bad for your narrative. You need to make a choice: either get that character out, or make the story about them. I suggest taking them out and saving them for another project, but that’s just me. I like recycling. 😉

Anyway, so that’s some things to think about character. Hope it helps those who need help, and if that’s not you… Why are you reading blogs? Go write something. I can’t wait to read it.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

International Covers the Engen Way

Ignorance is Bliss, 2010 edition, Matthew LeDrew, Engen BooksEver since last October with the release of Ignorance is Bliss and Infinity, Engen Books has been an international small press publisher. That term seems oxymoronic. Oh well.

Since then we’ve released four titles: the two listed above as well as Becoming and More Sci-Fi from the Rock. Two more are coming out at this year’s Hal Con: one new one (Inner Child) and one re-release (Compendium).

The move to the international stage meant a lot of changes for us. It put pressure on us to refine our editing process now that the whole world was watching. It made us more willing to expand our stable of authors so that we could produce more material on a regular basis.

It also meant we had to change our covers.

Our new printers / distributors do not print covers at the size our books were at before (pocket paperback). The smallest size they will go to is 5×8. We experimented with just keeping the cover design the same and enlarging it, but I’d been feeling insecure about the covers to the Black Womb series for some time, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to rectify the situation. So, we hired an amazing young artist named Zach Aboulazm to paint the Infinity cover, and I set about designing the new standard for the Black Womb series. This is a very long introduction to a very short concept, but basically I’d like to share the way I design my covers, because I think it’s cool. Maybe you will, too.

Julie Peterson, stage one
Julie Peterson, stage one

So this is the first stage. This is just a sketch. We’re going to be looking at the cover of Ignorance is Bliss, which features Julie Peterson. I suppose from a marketing standpoint I should be doing Inner Child, but I like Julie. She’s one of my favorite fictional people. I like this sketch of her, she looks great. Very rarely do I feel I’m able to capture with a pencil what I create with words, but this is an example where I was pleased. Anyway, this is the original scan.

Julie Peterson, stage two
Julie Peterson, stage two

Next we clean up. Yah clean up! Let’s do the ten second tidy! Lol. I use two main programs for image exiting: Nero Photo Viewer (in edit mode) and Adobe Fireworks. For this stage I open the original scan initially in Fireworks and get rid of any grit or pencil lines along the edges, then I save and open in Nero and use the brightness/contrast to darken the lines and improve the quality of the image. It also brings out shadows that were there in the original sketch, but for some reason are lost in the scan.

(Edit: I should point out that in reality, there would be more than two images at this point. I re-save as a new file for every change I make, so that if I mess up I can easily go back.)

Okay, here’s the weird part. At least, I think it’s weird. It might be a normal method for image design, I don’t know, but I was never taught it. As far as I’m concerned I made it up myself.

Julie Peterson, stage three
Julie Peterson, stage three

First you need to decide what colors are going to be in the final image (in this case flesh tone, red, white, blue and brown). You open the second image in Nero and, using the duo-tone tool, create a version of the image for each color where the only colors are black and it. That’s a confusing sentence. There’s an example to the left. I’m only uploading the flesh tone version because to upload them all would simply be overkill.

Julie Peterson, stage four
Julie Peterson, stage four

So now you open up Fireworks and you create a new file with each of these colored images as a different layer. Then starting with the top layer you peel away any unnecessary image. For example, on the red layer I deleted everything except her lips. When done, you should have a flat image with all the colors where they should be, like this.

What’s the point of doing this? Well now I can remove each layer at will, creating artsy versions of the cover easily. I especially like a version where it’s just her hair and mouth, it looks great.

Julie Peterson, stage five
Julie Peterson, stage five

But from a more practical standpoint, I can now edit each color without affecting the other. I can shade each until I’m happy with it without harming the other factors. So here’s where I shade it and try to make the image come alive.

Julie Peterson, stage six
Julie Peterson, stage six

After this, it’s all practical. I love the image as is, but we’ve made a stylistic choice to keep some black and white element in from the old covers. I feel it harkens back to the old days of horror, those good old Twilight Zone episodes. So, we open the newly-shaded image file in Nero and convert to gray-scale.

Julie Peterson, stage seven
Julie Peterson, stage seven

Now we just open it up in Fireworks again and, using the blur tool, get rid of those obvious lines around her head. I feel this also gives it a painted look.

Julie Peterson on the final, finished cover of
Julie Peterson on the final, finished cover of “Ignorance is Bliss,” 2010, Engen Books

From here it’s simple. Once we’d decided on the new cover format (different color each time with a vertical window instead of the old horizontal ones), we just created a standard template for that and add it into it. The result is, in my opinion, a fairly cool cover to our first international title.

Let me know what you think, or if this method has a name.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process 6: Multiple Leads

Okay, so there’s only so much I can write “in order” as I’ve been doing. So far these Writing Process blogs have followed the basic process I go writing a manuscript. But once you get to the point that the first draft is done, what else is there? Well, lots. But we’ll get into that some other time.

What I’d like to do is go over the different methods I use to write. I’m going to go through them one at a time to avoid major confusion. Unlike what I’ve been doing up to this point (which I consider the most effective way to do things) these are the frills of writing… The extra stuff you can do if you feel like it to improve the way you write.

The first of these writing methods I call “Multiple Leads.” I imagine I didn’t invent it, and other people may call it something else. Feel free to add the real name in the comments below, if you’re smarter than me. All I know is, it’s a method of storytelling that I’ve found suits me well.

What it is, or what my definition of it is, is to literally have multiple leads in a story. To basically have three stories going on at one time, at all times. So this is a trick not for the faint of heart, or perhaps not for beginners. But I suspect that’s not the case. I think anyone would be able to do this, if they’d only give it a shot.

So let’s do an example. I do crime fiction, but you could do it for any genre I think. But for my benefit, we’ll use crime fiction as our example. Let’s say we have three characters: a rookie cop who has just been promoted to homicide, a district attorney in the middle of a messy divorce, and a normal Joe who stumbles upon a grisly murder and is unsure of if they should come forward or not, and his girlfriend thinks he doesn’t. So already we’ve got lots going on. Any of these plots could make up a whole novel… But we’re going to use them all at once.

What we’re going to do here is switch back and forth between the three. So Rookie-Lawyer-Bystander. Then repeat. Just start a scene, write it about the Rookie. Write the scene to it’s natural conclusion, doesn’t matter how short or long it is. Then write the lawyer, same deal. Then the bystander. Then repeat. Then keep repeating.

I know that seems trite, but honestly it works very well on multiple levels. If you’re the type who gets bored easily then switching between storylines will help you remain engaged in the story. If you’re the type who gets writer’s block easily, then switching to a new storyarc will give you a chance to get the problematic one straight in your head.

And I know what you’re thinking: how can three separate stories told from three different points of view make a novel?

Well the answer is that these stories are going to converge. Eventually the bystander is going to go to the cops with his story, and only the rookie will believe him. Or maybe he doesn’t come forward, and the genius rookie finds him. Either way, once their stories meet… Keep the pattern, except now both characters are in those scenes. So now it’s:

Rookie/bystander-lawyer-bystander/rookie: repeat.

This will give the reader the illusion that the story is picking up pace.

So eventually these two might branch off into separate scenes again, but usually once two characters / plots mesh up like this they tend to want to stick together. And I mean that. The plots will almost demand that you keep the characters in scenes together. Eventually, as any Law & Order fan knows, they’ll have to get the lawyer involved. Now we’re into the climax and it’s all one big scene, and you just go crazy. Combining the three plots into a dovetail in this way is exciting to read, and gives the impression we planned it all along… Even though we may not have. Sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t, but having say the Lawyer there all along rather than just dropping her in in the third act makes you seem the better writer.

I know it seems formulaic, but I find it works. Not only that, but remember it’s a first draft you’re penning. When you go through it for a second draft you’re going to feel that there should be another bystander scene added that won’t fit the pattern. And you’ll find one of the Rookie scenes useless and delete it. So by the time the novel gets into the reader’s hands, the pattern won’t be noticeable. Trust me.

And remember, this can work with anything. Romance, Scifi, doesn’t matter.

So that’s Multiple Leads. I hope that if you try it it works well for you, as it has on occasion for me.

Let me know how it goes!
Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew