Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Ideas Shoppe: The Making of a Superhero (Part 2)

Continuing my look at the creation of the Vanguard Prime team, I thought it was best to present the other junior member – Machina.


I knew it was important to include more than one teenage member of the team, and I also knew it was important to make that other member a girl. Machina arrived in my head almost fully formed. I knew I needed a “tech-head” for the group, and an armoured one would make a contrast to all the other members. The name popped out at me almost immediately, which I took as a sign that it should be a placeholder until I came up with something “better”, but ‘Machina’ quickly grew on me and so the name stuck.


I’ve been asked more than once how it’s pronounced. Technically, it should be “mack-in-a”, but I have to admit I pronounce it “ma-sheen-a”. The disparity exists because the name comes from “deus ex machina”, a term which translates from Latin as “god from the machine”. To quote Wikipedia (always an intelligent-sounding thing to say) it’s “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object”.


I half-named the character after this term because her power could become an easy “Get Out of Jail Free” card and I wanted a reminder to not let that happen – at least not too much. The mispronunciation comes into play because I just think it sounds better. A writer’s heart is a fickle thing.


As far as her character itself is concerned, I drew on all the slightly older teen girls I remembered from when I was young who all seemed so much more sophisticated than I was and were all highly terrifying. Admittedly, there’s also a dash of Hermione Granger in there, as well as a large helping of Asuka Langley Soryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion, though I wasn’t conscious of either of those influences at the time. It’s only in retrospect that I realise how much those characters factored into Machina’s inception.


Design-wise, I envisioned Machina in a white V-suit that matched my original idea for Sam’s, with her outfit made-up of purple circuit-patterns where Sam’s was gold. Picturing actors in the role of my characters always helps me in creating them. I imagined Machina as a cross between Brie Larson, Alison Lohman and Stephanie Bendixsen, only British, and sketched out a rough idea of what she might look like to get a handle on describing her.

One of the first Machina sketches, where I was working out how the circuit pattern might work.

A later sketch, where the circuit patterns are starting to get out of hand.

My final, streamlined design, where the circuit patterns manage to form ‘M’s and ‘V’s at the same time.

All of these designs suffer from the obvious problem that I can’t really draw but they helped me to envision the character, which in turn informed my description of her.


Eventually, my final sketch was passed onto the book’s design team. Just as with Sam, it was thought a white suit wouldn’t strike the right image, so the colours of Machina’s outfit were swapped to black and purple. Her character is very much retained, however. Interesting note: while I drew on the actresses I’ve listed for my mental image of the character, the book’s designer used Michelle Williams as a starting point. I remember being really impressed with the designer’s insight when she told me that.

The final Machina design, where she demonstrates her armour-forming power.

Of course, all this gives an insight into the visual of Machina, but not her character. For that, I’d like to point to a couple of moments from the book.


One of those moments is where she’s talking about how she came to be a member of the team, and how that relates back to the relationship she has with her family. Machina doesn’t come from the same kind of background as Sam does. Though she by no means had a “bad” upbringing, I imagined her parents to be very distant people who’d had a daughter almost as an afterthought. The fact that she prefers to go by her superhero alias rather than her civilian name goes to show just how alienated she is from her family.


The other moment – and it’s a tiny one- is where Sam is listing the objects he sees when looking around Machina’s room and he notes all the stacks of CDs. It’s not commented on, and nobody has mentioned it to me as yet, but it seems odd in this day and age that a teenager would have need of physical albums, especially a teenager as tech-savvy as Machina.


I imagined these CDs to have been handed down to her from her older brother – the artifacts he passed on to help her cope when he left home and she was still stuck with their parents. It’s why she’s so knowledgeable and snobby about music, but it’s also why she’s standoff-ish with Sam when he joins the team; she’s created a new family for herself with Vanguard Prime, a family where she has a distinct role and purpose, and suddenly a new baby brother has come along to potentially usurp that.


She keeps those CDs as a tangible connection to her brother, using them as a security blanket in a way. I never actually address that in the book and I don’t know if I ever will during the course of the series, but it’s touches like those that writers create for themselves – if no one else – as they imagine the interior life of all their characters.


Since the book’s come out, I’ve been a lot asked about the relationship between Machina and Sam. I think the best answer I can give is that the dynamic between them is a complicated one, and that it will only grow more complicated in time to come, especially as Book 2 will throw a spanner in the works that nobody’s really counting on at the moment.


What is that spanner? You’ll have to wait until March 2013 to find out. But if you want to learn a little more about Machina, make sure to check out her bio here.


The Ideas Shoppe: The Making of a Superhero (Part 1)

When I was first outlining the story that would become Vanguard Prime: Goldrush, I had nothing but a few spare ideas of what I wanted it to be, which I gathered together in a file on my computer called “YA superhero story”. Those ideas included the goal of creating superhero characters that felt authentic, that could be a main character in their own right, and that would have a certain weight and sense of history to them.


Eventually, I’ll explain how I come to create each member of the Vanguard Prime team, but for this first post in the series, I thought the best place to start was at the heart of the team with Goldrush himself.


By the book’s own nature of being a Young Adult story, I knew I had to have a young character at the centre of events. I wanted the main character to be relatable, so he had to have a fairly basic power that had the potential to develop over the course of the series.


My first idea was to draw on the characters I created when I was a teenager (and an aspiring comic artist), which included ‘Soundstorm’, a superhero who could absorb sound and transform it into energy. I toyed with this idea for a while, before eventually dismissing it as unworkable.


The next power I considered was a stranger one; a hyper-kinetic ability that would give the character the ability to bounce and ricochet from one surface to another, like a human superball. This seemed too difficult a power to encapsulate for a reader unused to superhero stories, so once again I canned it.


All the while, I was trying to work out what the character’s visual motif would be. Superheroes need a strong visual “gimmick”, for lack of a better word. The most famous superhero characters have an iconic appearance that generally stems from a simple concept; a man dressed up as a bat or a spider, a soldier dressed in his country’s flag, a speedster who uses bold colours and lightning bolts to convey motion (Superman gets a pass on his visual being so generic because he’s the guy from which all other superheroes stem).


Drawing from my old note books again, I found ‘Goldrush’ listed in the ranks of a superhero team I’d generated names for but never created any characters to go with them. Turning the name over in my mind, I realised it was perfect. It gave me a colour scheme to work with, it suggested a power, and it stuck in the memory. It sounded a little goofy, but in a cool way that the best Gold and Silver Age superhero names sounded.


But why “gold”? Just because of his costume? And what were the limitations of being a speedster? Would he need to wear a helmet to protect himself from the velocity he’d be travelling at? I sketched out an idea of what the character might look like with a mask, guarding him from both g-forces and the media’s cameras (you’ll have to forgive the roughness of the drawings – there’s a reason I gave up on trying to be an artist).

The first sketch of the character that would become Goldrush

It just didn’t look right, though. I had run into the same problem that Hollywood does whenever it produces a movie about a masked superhero; you limit the range of emotion you can show. Not that that’s much of an issue in prose, of course, but there was always the book cover to consider.


I took another pass at the design, deciding on white and gold as the colour scheme to help differentiate the character from the Flash. I liked how sunny and positive it was, but felt it still looked cool. Having decided on the name Sam Lee, my character was formed. Now I just had to write about him.

Goldrush as he was first envisioned.

Three years later, when my book was finished and had been picked up by Penguin, the design process for Goldrush began all over again. The designer and publisher felt that a mostly-white costume wouldn’t work, and asked how I’d feel about swapping the suit’s colours. At first I was unsure, but then I sketched out a rough idea of what it might look like and found myself pleased with it.

The inverted Goldrush uniform, incorporating ‘V’s into the design.

From there, the illustrator and designer took over. The first step was in finalising Sam’s look, with the illustrator providing a preliminary design that I can’t post now, but hopefully at some stage I will. It retained some of the white elements, coupling them with glowing neon and a black base layer that was visually stunning, but a little busy.


Working with that feedback, and moving in a darker, more realistic direction, the illustrator took a second – and final – pass at the costume. Streamlined, strong, futuristic, Goldrush’s V-suit (as the team’s outfits are called in the VP universe) looks like what an expert costume designer would create for the big budget Hollywood adaptation of the book.

The finalised Goldrush design, as featured on the book’s cover.

But most of all, it retains the most important elements that I’d aimed for when first coming up with the character; it has a strong visual theme, it identifies him and the team he works for, and most of all…it looks cool! Beyond his visual appearance, however, Sam also had to be sketched out as a person.


Once again drawing from my own adolescence, I took the pressure and intimidation I felt in transitioning from primary school into high school and multiplied it a thousand times. I knew I didn’t want to refer to my own experiences too much, however, as I’d basically included myself as the main character in the first manuscript I’d tried to get published, and it hadn’t turned out well.


So I thought through Sam’s life and his predicament – wouldn’t it make things harder for him if his life back home was happy, even idyllic? How would his parents feel about shipping him off to what amounts to the most high-pressure military school in the world? And what was the incident that saw Sam gain his powers? What got him to that moment, and in what ways was he changed after it?


These were all the questions I had to ask and answer in creating Sam, and they’re the same questions that are posed through the course of the book. Because it’s not just the flashy costumes that draw us to superhero characters, it’s the people beneath them.

…which sounds a little dirty, now that I think about it.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the publishing curtain. Make sure to come back for Part 2 in the Making of a Superhero, to be posted…well, whenever I get around to it, really.


‘Til then.

Author At Large

This past weekend proved to be a busy one, with events to attend on both Saturday and Sunday. First up was National Bookshop Day, where I had been asked to be a celebrity bookseller for the Younger Sun bookshop in Yarraville. I was only there for an hour, but what an exciting hour it was!

Stepping behind the counter, I immediately reverted to my retailing days, acting like it was my first shift as a new employee and I was duty-bound to work out exactly how the till operated as quickly as possible. Eventually I remembered that I was there in a capacity other than simply manning the register and started actually, y’know, talking to customers and mentioning the fact that, yes, that was my book stacked up on the counter.

The defining moment came when, while talking to a woman and not-so-subtly dropping the fact that I was the author of Vanguard Prime: Goldrush, the young man she was with turned in surprise and said “Really?!”

“Yep,” I replied, and I didn’t get the chance to say much more than that as he ran out of the store to go get his friend. Earlier in the day, the staff at the Younger Sun had set up a blackboard out the front where kids could write the names of their favourite books, and as it turned out the boy who had just fled the store had a friend who’d written down “VP: Goldrush” as his favourite book, without even realising that I was in the store!

When the two guys came back in and explained the story, I don’t know who was more excited – them or me! (actually, I do know. It was me). It was a thrilling moment in a very fun day, and I can’t think the staff at the Younger Sun enough for letting me come in and stuff up their transactions for them!

The next day, I headed out to Eltham Bookshop to participate in a Q&A led by Leanne Hall, the author of the beautiful and brilliant This is Shyness and Queen of the Night. Leanne had read Goldrush in advance of the event and made for a very enthusiastic interviewer – so much so that she actually brought along her own mask in a bid to get included in a future entry in the series!

Author Leanne Hall, aka ‘Supersonic’ / ‘Sam’s Sister’

That’s even more dedication than I’ve managed to muster up so far, having rejected all requests from my publisher to don a spandex costume in an effort to promote the book – trust me, that’s a sight nobody wants to see…least of all me!

I thoroughly expected only a few spare faces to turn up for the Eltham Bookshop Q&A, but store owner Meera is note to be underestimated in her ability to organise an event, with a good-sized crowd turning out to hear Leanne ask astute, articulate questions and for me to blather in response. Many thanks have to go out to Meera, Leanne, and the staff of the Eltham Bookshop for such a fun and successful event.

Meera of Eltham Bookshop and me.

The next time I’ll be out and about will be at the Ballarat Writers’ Festival on September 1st. In the meantime, I’m chatting with other booksellers about some other possible events, and I’m also preparing for my television debut – more on that in the future!

‘Til next time.

My Other Car is a Batmobile

Wednesday night saw me at Tim’s Bookshop in Canterbury, where I got the chance to talk to parents and students from Our Lady’s primary school. One of the best things about it was the Q&A afterwards, where I answered questions ranging from “So what happens in your story?” (something I should probably have covered better in the talk) to “What car do you drive?” (I only realised today I missed the opportunity to say “A Batmobile”).


One of the topics I covered was the fact that in Year 2 I was placed in a catch-up class for students who were struggling with their reading and writing skills. I’d had trouble picking up that particular ability in Year 1, so I was behind the other students when I moved up to the next grade. Thankfully, the catch-up class worked and I took to reading and writing with a previously undiscovered enthusiasm.


I thought it was important to let the kids know; just because you’re not immediately good at something doesn’t mean you never will be. Also, I drive a Batmobile – not the Toyota Camry that I said I did.


This weekend, not only will I be at the Younger Sun for National Bookshop Day, I’ll also be In Conversation with Leanne Hall at the Eltham Bookshop at 3pm on Sunday. We’ll be discussing Vanguard Prime: Goldrush and the road to publication. Make sure to come visit!

Where I’ll Be On National Bookshop Day

Saturday 11th August is National Bookshop Day, and I’ve been invited to be a “celebrity” bookseller at The Younger Sun Bookshop. I put quotation marks around “celebrity” as I fully expect nobody to know who I am, and the fact that Andy Griffiths is following me means there’ll no doubt be a huge crowd of kids shouting “We want Andy! We want Andy!”.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you! I can’t wait to meet everyone who comes in, as well as hopefully sell some books (whether they’re mine or somebody else’s). There’s a lot of talk these days about the challenges that bookshops are facing. Let’s show them our support!

I’ve copied the details for The Younger Sun’s National Bookshop Day event below;


Join us to celebrate the bricks and mortar bookshop on National Bookshop Day, Saturday 11th August 2012. To thank you for being ace and supporting your local bookshop we’ve got a bunch of fun things planned, including celebrity booksellers, treats and competitions. We are also taking part in ‘The Lost Thing Passport’ competition in conjunction with many other wonderful Melbourne independent bookshops. The passport is inspired by Shaun Tan’s magical book The Lost Thing. Get your passport stamped at participating stores and you could WIN A SIGNED SUITCASE EDITION OF SHAUN TAN’S THE ARRIVAL as well as gift vouchers from participating stores. The winner will be drawn at the end of Book Week on 24th August.

You can also go in the draw to WIN A BOOK A MONTH FOR A YEAR on us if you buy a book from the Sun Bookshop or the Younger Sun on the day.

We will have super special celebrity author booksellers Josephine Rowe (Tarcutta Wake, How a Moth Becomes a Boat) and Chris Flynn (Tiger in Eden) at the Sun Bookshop 2:30pm-3:30pm.

We are also very pleased to announce Kate from the Younger Sun will be returning to the shop to join in the fun on the day. As well, we have a whole list of awesome celebrity booksellers for the Younger Sun! They are:

Cath Crowley 10.00am – 11.00am

Danny Katz 11.00am – 12.00pm

Clare Saxby 12.00pm – 1.00pm

Steven Lochran 1.00pm – 2.00pm

Andy Griffiths 2.00pm – 3.00pm