Creating “Geniuses” — my upcoming fantasy novel series

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I’m thrilled to finally be able to announce what I’ve been working since Korra wrapped. I’m writing and illustrating a 3-book middle-grade series! The first book, Geniuses: The Creature and the Creator, will be published in Fall 2016 by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s.

Here’s the synopsis:

Set in a Renaissance-like fantasy world, Geniuses explores the concept of “art as magic,” where an artist’s creative genius is actually a living creature, a real-life muse that inspires and protects him or her. Because the leader of this world sees the Genius as a great and dangerous power, anyone with a Genius is captured, to ensure he or she doesn’t become a threat to society. Many have their Geniuses destroyed, and subsequently, become ghosts of their former selves, doomed to live a life without direction, inspiration, or original thought.

But a talented few are keeping their creativity and their Geniuses alive at a secret studio, where young artists like 12-year-old Giacomo learn how to harness their Genius’ power. But before Giacomo’s training is complete, he and his fellow students set off on a life-or-death quest to find the mythical Creator’s Compass before it falls into the hands of a rogue artist, who plans to use the Compass to destroy the world.

And here’s more backstory on the project:

The journey of creating the world of Geniuses has been a long and meandering one that began over ten years ago. And it all started with a single idea: Art as magic.

Little did I know these three little words would set me off on a quest to figure out how to tell an entertaining story that could express that concept. There were many false starts and wrong turns on the way to creating this book. More than once I gave up on it, abandoning what I had written to the recesses of my hard drive. But inevitably, a few months would pass and a new idea would spark my imagination, or a new angle on the story would present itself, and I’d dive back into the world.

One of those important sparks was when I learned about the origins of the word genius. In a book about Da Vinci, I discovered that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a genius wasn’t a person, but a spirit that protected and inspired artists. Ah ha! I thought, what if in my story, the artists had living muses? I immediately pictured them as winged bird creatures, rushed to my laptop, and continued to write.

But while that idea provided a lot of momentum, I still floundered. I was also more than a little busy with Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, so any writing I did was either at night or on the weekends. In my mind, my story about artists and their Geniuses was a fun, personal side project that may or may not become publishable one day.

Then in 2014, as Korra was winding down, I began to think about what I really wanted to work on next, and it wasn’t another animated show. I challenged myself to finish the “art as magic” story I began so many years ago and find a publisher who could help me get it out into the world. So I’m thrilled to be working with editor Connie Hsu and the team at Roaring Brook.

The point of all this is to say that when I came up with this idea ten years ago, I didn’t think it would amount to anything, much less become a published book. But my Genius spirit prodded and inspired me to keep working on it, even when I thought the idea was worthless. I’m glad I listened to it and I hope the book inspires others to listen to their own creative muse, in whatever form that takes, and create what is meaningful to them.

Over the years working on Avatar and Korra, I’ve heard from and met so many wonderful fans who have shared how the Avatar universe inspired them to overcome a struggle in their life, to follow a dream, or achieve a long sought-after goal. I realized how transformative and impactful stories and characters can be in a young person’s life, and I hope to continue inspiring and entertaining people with this new world.

It’s also fun to draw again and I’m excited to illustrate the novel as well as write it. Done in a style of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks, the illustrations will be images from the main character’s sketchbook, 12-year-old artist named Giacomo. During the last few years working on Korra, my time was spent working more on the writing side of production than the drawing side, so my sketching skills are a bit rusty. But I’m confident I can draw as good as a 12-year-old (albeit a really talented 12-year-old!)

Art has been the driving force through my whole life and career. I was drawing as far back as I can remember, and probably before that. And although I’m now known for my work in animation, my early artistic heroes were painters like Picasso, Dali, and Pollock.

In high school, as I became more serious about art, I hungered for stories about artists, but they were hard to come by. I read biographies of painters, but in the fictional realm, only The Fountainhead and My Name is Asher Lev provided stories in which the artist was the hero. My hope with the Geniuses series is to give kids the type of book my younger self would’ve loved growing up — a novel where artists are heroes, where creativity and inspiration can lead to a life-changing adventure, and where art is magic.

 

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Korrasami Confirmed

Now that Korra and Asami’s final moment is out in the world, it seems like an appropriate time to express how I feel about it. I didn’t want to say anything right away so the audience could experience the finale for themselves.

The main themes of the Avatar universe have always revolved around equality, justice, acceptance, tolerance, and balancing differing worldviews. In subtle and maybe not so subtle ways, Avatar and Legend of Korra have dealt with difficult subjects such as genocide, child abuse, deaths of loved ones, and post traumatic stress. I took it as a complement when Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair called the show subversive. There were times even I was surprised we were able to delve into the really tough stuff on a children’s TV network. While the episodes were never designed to “make a statement”, Bryan and I always strove to treat the more difficult subject matter with the respect and gravity it deserved.

And over the years we’ve heard from numerous fans, in person and online, how Avatar and Korra have influenced their lives for the better or helped them overcome a life struggle or setback. I am always humbled when people share their personal stories with us and I am grateful that my love for telling stories has been able to help people in some small way. So while Avatar and Korra were always meant to be entertaining and engaging tales, this universe and its characters also speak to the deeper humanity in all of us, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, culture, nationality, or sexual orientation.

Our intention with the last scene was to make it as clear as possible that yes, Korra and Asami have romantic feelings for each other. The moment where they enter the spirit portal symbolizes their evolution from being friends to being a couple. Many news outlets, bloggers, and fans picked up on this and didn’t find it ambiguous. For the most part, it seems like the point of the scene was understood and additional commentary wasn’t really needed from Bryan or me. But in case people were still questioning what happened in the last scene, I wanted to make a clear verbal statement to complement the show’s visual one. I get that not everyone will be happy with the way that the show ended. Rarely does a series finale of any show satisfy that show’s fans, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the positive articles and posts I’ve seen about Korra’s finale.

I’ve already read some heartwarming and incredible posts about how this moment means so much for the LGBT community. Once again, the incredible outpouring of support for the show humbles me. As Tenzin says, “Life is one big bumpy ride.” And if, by Korra and Asami being a couple, we are able to help smooth out that ride even a tiny bit for some people, I’m proud to do my part, however small it might be. Thanks for reading.

Nerdist Writer’s Podcast

Bryan and I were guests on the Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast with Ben Blacker. We talked about the creation of the show, the move to digital, and even about the Movie That Shall Not Be Named. Ben does a great job with the podcast and has had some big names on in the past, like Matthew Weiner, Damon Lindelof, and Vince Gilligan, so I was honored to be one of his guests! It’s a great podcast, with in depth interviews with a lot of showrunners from some of the best series out there. A great resource for aspiring writers and people who just like learning more about how a TV show is made.

Find the interview here on itunes. Also on the Nerdist website.

Writing the Script

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In the final part of this series on “Beginnings, Part 1″, we’re going to take a look at the script — essentially the blueprint for all the actors and artists once we move into the production phase.

Once the outline is written and we’ve received notes from Bryan and the network, I usually go over the notes with the writer before they head off to write the first draft. When I write a script, I also have all my other executive producer meetings to do, so often I’ll write for an hour here and there, sometimes at night, or whenever I have a spare moment. This isn’t my ideal way to write, but I make it work.

Because we’ve thoroughly worked through all the story beats in the premise and outline phases, the script writing is more focused on nailing down dialogue and describing the action in a clear, visual way. I find it’s really helpful to have to only focus on those parts, without simultaneously trying to figure out the plot as well. It’s like if you tried to build a house while also drawing the blueprints at the same time — there would be a lot of wasted effort going back and forth between the two.

One technique our writers Josh and Tim taught me is to take the outline and copy it into Final Draft (the scriptwriting program we use). Then you simply format the dialogue and action paragraphs and in no time at all, you have something that resembles a script. It’s much less daunting to start that way than with a blank page (and saves you from retyping things from the outline you may want to use). From there, I go through scene by scene, improving on and adding to the dialogue and action descriptions.

One tip when writing action descriptions, especially for animation (though this would apply to live-action as well): because an artist needs to draw what is written on the page, the action descriptions must be a specific as possible. Good writing always conjures images in the readers imagination, but there is little room (or need) to get flowery in a screenplay, so I make sure to use action verbs and keep the language very concrete. Very rarely do I use adjectives, unless it’s important to the way a character will be animated. Otherwise, adjectives don’t add to the clarity of the description. Here’s an example from the script.

Wan shoots wild blasts of fire at the Chous and the guards, but their numbers overwhelm him. Little Chou closes the gap and jumps on Wan’s back. Wan spins around with his arm extended, trying to hit Little Chou, but instead he creates a ring of fire around them. Little Chou falls off Wan’s back, pulling off Wan’s mask in the process. Wan raises his fist. Little Chou cowers and closes his eyes.
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There is one adjective in there — “wild” — to describe the way Wan is using fire. In this case I think it’s helpful for the storyboard artists to know how Wan is firebending. Since he’s still unskilled at this point, I went with “wild blasts”.

After about three weeks, the writer turns in the first draft. Usually, it comes in a few pages long, which is fine at this point. We’d rather have more to work with than less. Before we turn it into the network for notes, we once again gather in the writer’s room and do an internal punch up session. As a group, we project the script on a screen, and go through it page by page. We pitch alternate versions of lines and try to make the dialogue as good as we can. We also trim out any lines or action that aren’t strong or critical to the plot, with the aim of getting the page count shorter. Once we are all happy with the rewrite, we then turn it into the network for notes.

Once we get the notes back, we do one last punch up session (which is usually a lot quicker than the first), addressing anything that needs to be tweaked. We look for more cuts at this point as well. The goal is to finish with a 26-28 page script. Shows with a lot of action (like finale episodes) are usually even shorter, around 21 or 22 pages.

We call this script the Record Draft, and this is the version we use to record the actors and which the storyboard artists use to begin visualizing the story. You’ll see numbers next to each dialogue line — these are used to keep track of each line as we record.

Roughly eight weeks later, Bryan, the writers, the supervising producers, the director and assistant director, network executives, and I gather and watch the animatic. The animatic gives us an idea of how the story and action flows. We also get to see how long the episode is. We ship shows to Studio Mir at 23 minutes (for Books 1 & 2) and 22 minutes (for Books 2 & 3).*

Aye-Aye stands guard. Wan, (covered completely in mud, twigs, and leaves) walks up to the spirit. Aye-Aye looks suspicious.

Aye-Aye stands guard. Wan, (covered completely in mud, twigs, and leaves) walks up to the spirit. Aye-Aye looks suspicious.

Sometimes animatics run long. Like really long. Like 25 or 26 minutes long. Those are always the toughest because we have to find a way to cut them down without compromising the story. Usually it’s a combination of cutting (or speeding up) some of the action and cutting dialogue. I’m always surprised just how much we can trim out without breaking the story. This episode came in at around 24 minutes, about a minute too long. We make these cuts in yet another group writing session and turn in the Animatic Draft, which the directors use to finalize the storyboards before sending the episode to Studio Mir.

For this episode, the first sequence with Korra and the sage became shorter and shorter with each stage of the writing, until only the essential elements were left. Since this was Wan’s story, it made sense to get to him as quickly as possible. There’s also a scene on page 4 during the chase montage, where Wan is disguised as a woman. It was the least funny of the beats and I don’t miss it at all. It was a good cut. There’s also a short spirit wilds montage scene on page 15 that was cut out — again, it didn’t really add anything to the story, so we got rid of it. The Record draft is 28 pages, but the final version we sent to Studio Mir was 26 pages. And sometimes we have to trim out a little bit more when we edit the final episode.

By breaking down the story into the premise, outline, and script phases, it makes the story writing process much more manageable. It’s similar to the animation process. You can’t start with the final, cleaned up animation. You begin with very rough storyboards and build from there. Likewise with the script. It just wouldn’t work to sit down with a blank script page and start writing some dialogue, hoping the story will gel in the process. Working through the premise and outline helps you as the writer figure out what the story will be. And if you want to make any big changes along the way, it’s much easier (and less demoralizing) to rewrite a few paragraphs of description than an entire script.

Here’s the Record Draft of “Beginnings, Part 1″: K207_RECORD_DRAFT_1.16.12

*Due to Nickelodeon shortening our air times, the length of the shows decreased by a minute for Books 3 & 4. At first, I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to fit all the story we wanted into the shorter length, but it ended up working out fine.

If you missed part 1 or 2 of this series you can find them here:

Writing the Premise

Writing the Outline

Writing the Outline

The premise has been written, we’re received notes from the network, and now we’re ready for phase two — the outline!

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Legend of Korra outlines are a detailed, beat for beat description and summary of the episode. Like with the initial story ideas, all the writers gather together in the “writing room” (AKA my office) to pitch out the story in further detail. We use the premise as our starting point, and over the course of two days, flesh out the emotional arcs and story beats as well as pitch out dialogue ideas and jokes.

On day one, we spend a good chunk of time working out the entire plot in detail. The premise provides us the story framework, but now is the time to nail down story specifics. In the case of “Beginnings, Part 1″, several of you pointed out how different Wan’s character felt in the premise compared with the final episode. His personality definitely evolved over the course of the writing process, due mainly to the fact that he was a brand new character. Bryan and I always imagined him as a classic trickster hero. In myth, the trickster hero often causes change in his or her world by messing with people and ignoring society’s rules. Our challenge was to keep Wan’s mischievousness and trickster tendencies, without making him too selfish or unsympathetic. We also wanted to give him a specific personality beyond the trickster archetype. With each stage of the writing, we honed in on his more generous side. He because a guy who always stands up for the downtrodden, whether they’re animals, humans, or spirits. In the outline, you’ll see how the beat of Wan giving up his stolen bread to feed the animals is missing. I added that in the script phase to show Wan’s generosity and also set up his connection with animals (which comes into play when he saves Mula from the trap).

A few logistics about how we structure the outline: The show is split up into three acts, and each act has seven to eight story beats. As we discuss the story in the writer’s room and pitch out the beats, the writer will write a sentence or two describing that beat on an index card and tack it to the wall. This is usually done in order, but sometimes we might have some beats figured out at the beginning and the end, but act 2 will be empty. Another way we approach the story structure is to look at the premise and decide what our act breaks will be. The goal of the act break is to have a dramatic moment that turns the story in a different direction (and keeps the audience watching after the commercial break!) We then fill in the missing beats around those tent-pole moments.

With this in mind, we knew that act 1 would have a lot of set-up involved. We had to show Korra in the beginning, establish Wan and his normal life, and see him enact the plan to steal the fire from the lion-turtle. For a while we thought the first act break would be Wan’s banishment, but that would’ve made the first third of the show too long. Therefore, we decided that the act 1 break would be Wan returning his tree house and showing his friends that he stole the fire, a bold action that causes the story to take a new direction in act 2.

Act 2 encompasses Wan using the fire to defend his friends from the Chous, being banished, and surviving in the wilds. The end of act 2 shows Wan saving Mula the cat-deer by standing up to the group of hunters. In act 3, having gained Aye-aye’s trust, Wan lives with the spirits and learns to master his firebending skills. Then he sets off into the world where he encounters Raava and Vaatu. He splits the fighting spirits and learns that his actions have great consequences, setting up “Beginnings, part 2″.

And after a day of discussions, we have all our index cards filled out. This is what the episode looked like, broken into beats.

The pitch out cards. The different colors denote different characters.

The pitch out cards. The different colors show the Korra beats separate from the Wan beats.

Act 1

  • A weakened Korra is taken back to Bhanti Village. She wants to regain her memory.
  • Shaman tells Korra her spirit is weak – if she doesn’t regain memory, she will grow weaker and die.
  • Korra taken to isolation chamber. She must return “to the beginning.”
  • Korra goes into sensory deprivation, transition into flashback.
  • Wan chased by bullies through city streets – tricks them and gets away.
  • Wan meets up with Jaya and Crazy Yao back at hideout. Wan has plan to change things.
  • Goes out with hunters. Gets power of fire from lion-turtle, but ditches hunters and sneaks back to city.
  • Wan shows Jaya he has firebending.

Act 2

  • Wan demands food from bullies. They attack – he firebends. They run scared but now town is on fire.
  • Fire rages. Lion-turtle puts it out, Wan tackled and arrested.
  • Wan banished. Lion-turtle takes mercy, lets him keep firebending.
  • Wan’s first night in wilds – frightening, mystical. Can’t sleep, keeps getting attacked, ends up filthy and starving.
  • Finds oasis, tries to trick spirit guardian but is driven away (pretends he’s a spirit).
  • Comes across animal caught in trap. Tries to free it.
  • Hunters show up and order Wan to turn over animal. Wan refuses.

Act 3

  • Wan fights hunters using fire and knowledge of the wilds, but he’s overtaken.
  • Spirit from oasis saves Wan – tricks hunters into attacking each other – one gets away.
  • Spirit brings Wan back to oasis to heal – “you’re different than the others.”
  • Montage – intercut Wan’s skills growing with Wan’s legend growing. Wan lives in harmony with the spirits.
  • Wan and cat-deer rest – spirits and creatures flee a giant rumbling/chaos. Wan checks it out.
  • Dark and Light spirits fight and destroy everything. Wan splits them apart.
  • Dark Spirit escapes. Light Spirit tells Wan he has thrown world out of balance.
  • Korra twitches violently.

Now that we have all the beats, we spend the second day talking through the whole story, card by card. We pitch ideas for dialogue and jokes during this pass, while our writer’s assistant furiously takes notes of everything we discuss during the course of the day. At the end of day two, the writer takes the cards, all the written notes, and has about a week to write the outline. While it seems like all the heaving lifting was done in the pitch out, writing the outline still takes a lot of thought and skill. Many ideas are discussed over the two days, so it’s the writer’s job to hone all those ideas into the structure we discussed in an entertaining and clear way.

One thing to keep in mind as you’re outlining your own stories is to make sure the main character actively drives the story forward. Often a story will hit a wall or fall flat if the main character simply reacts to events around him or her. In Wan’s case, he steals the fire, saves the cat-deer, and splits Raava and Vaatu — all major story points which coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) correspond with the act breaks. Sure, events happen to Wan as well — he’s bullied, he’s banished, and he’s attacked by various spirits. But each of these events has an effect on Wan and results in him choosing to act in a new way moving forward.

In the outline, you’ll see there is a lot of sample dialogue. I’ll be the first to admit, most of it’s not that good. But that’s not its purpose here. Rather, the outline dialogue is used to get a sense of the kind of thing a character might say, but much of the time the dialogue is very “on the nose” and doesn’t always capture his or her voice, especially in an episode like this with many new characters. Lines and jokes from the outline often make it through to the final script, but they’re usually tweaked along the way. At this point, I don’t worry to much about getting the dialogue exactly right — I save that for the script. The goal of the outline is to give a clear picture of how the story will flow and how the characters will act.

Also in our outlines, there are headers indicating location and time of day. These are the same slug lines that appear in the final script. Their purpose is to indicate each time we are moving to a new location (necessary for the BG designers and storyboard artists to know what locations will be used). And later, the BG painters will reference the times of day in the script so they know whether a BG painting is supposed to be morning, day, night, etc.

As you read the outline, you’ll notice it much more closely resembles the finished episode, story-wise. But there is still some character-finessing to do as well as finalizing all the dialogue.

I find the story pitch out process and outline writing really fun. This is where the vision of what the story will be becomes much clearer and the possibilities (and problems) are more evident.

Click on the link to read the outline: K207_OUTLINE_11.10.11

Next time — the script!