New Short Story: “A Shadow to Light”

I wrote a new short story that changed its name a few times before I tentatively settled on “A Shadow to Light.” It’s about 6,000 words. I wrote its first draft in two days.

This is an unusual one because it’s the first time I wrote a short story based on a longer story. (I’ve done the reverse multiple times.) In short, this story is an expanded and embellished retelling of a short arc from my webcomic, Negative One. The words aren’t the same and the action has some differences, but the characters are the same and they’re all in the same situation they were.

I decided to write this after getting most of the way through the book of short stories I was reading in my leisure time. Weirdly, I was inspired by the book because I didn’t actually like it.

I’ve been reading Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link. The short stories are all a little surreal and it’s not just the subject matter. They aren’t bad stories at all but I can pretty decidedly say they aren’t for me. But I looked up some interviews with the author because I was curious as to why she writes the way she does, and I pretty quickly found something that explained it: her stories grow out of a concept she likes. You can really tell that the story exists so the author and the readers can swim around in that concept.

And even though I didn’t enjoy the book of stories as much as I wanted to, I wondered whether ideas I’ve written could support a story that’s more about an idea than it is about a character or a series of actions.

In writing “A Shadow to Light,” I did not succeed in keeping it mainly to the concept because I just always end up leaning into letting the characters carry it, but at least the kernel of the idea was inspired by the same process I was going for. I also figured that Kelly Link’s extreme weirdness and lack of closure did not stop her from being successful with these stories, so there was no reason I need all of my stories to be traditional beginning/middle/end journeys or cohesively presented buildings with their architectural plans all in order either. So it’s a little loose, a little inconclusive, a little bit more about a moment.

We’ll see how it goes.

Interview: Smash Pages

I’m used to being interviewed about asexuality, but this time someone who became aware of my work through The Invisible Orientation ended up reaching out to me for an interview regarding my webcomics. It was a nice change to discuss something other than asexuality.

If you’d like some insight into my webcomics, my process, my thoughts on non-traditional media, my techniques, and my philosophy regarding art, I am linking the interview with Alex Dueben below.

Smash Pages Q&A: Julie Sondra Decker

600 Issues

My webcomic Negative One hit its 600th issue last week.

In honor of the milestone, I tried a slightly different art style, using neutral gray markers instead of my usual sketchy pencil. It was an interesting change.

My mom was watching me draw this issue while she was hanging out at my house. She asked me to tell her what everyone thought of the different illustrations, and I told her I probably wouldn’t get many comments. She disagreed and I said, “No, really, almost nobody comments on the comic.” And she said, “Well then why do you do it?”

No offense to my mom of course, but this is kind of a bad question to ask an artist. I think she was asking because she wanted to know why I do it if not for feedback and evidence of audience enjoyment, but as a creator you can’t help but wonder if such a question implies that you shouldn’t make a work that gets little attention.

She understood and validated my response, though, and made it clear she accepted the inherent worth of the art form based on my relationship with it. I’ll share that with you here.

Negative One is the result of my decision to “retire” a fantasy series I wrote in college. I wrote it during an enduring stream of enthusiasm for a good number of years, and for a while I thought I would be able to sell it, but I didn’t even really work up to a solid try for publication before I’d realized (along with my research on how one approaches selling a story) that these particular books were never going to be publishable. At least, they’d never be publishable how they were, not even with significant editing, unless I fundamentally changed the nature of the books. And I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to change what the books were about to make them more mainstream, and I ultimately decided this was a personal story that I wanted to tell without restrictions. There’s a time and a place for that, and as a form of self-publishing, webcomics felt like that time and place for me.

I don’t intend to sell this. I don’t intend to make any money at it (don’t even, in fact, have a system in place to collect money for it even if I wanted to). I just want to make it on my own terms, once a week like I have for over eleven years, and keep telling the story I like about the characters I like to enjoy it the way I like it. It’s out there for other people who like stories like this to read if they please. It’s out there to ignore if people want to do that, too, and they do. There have been a few random fans of the comic who have interacted with me intensely for a while and then disappeared, and I have some friends who follow the comic either weekly or off-and-on. I see a little spike in the stats on its update day, so I know it has some loyal readers. But it’s not popular, and I’m not interested in doing anything differently to change that.

I’m satisfied with it and I love it. My more “mature” and “advanced” work has been molded by feedback and publishing expectations and restrictions and reading environments. That’s also fine. But as a person who has accepted feedback and incorporated foreign perspectives for plenty of other works, it’s comforting to have one thing where I don’t do that. That I’ve created a little niche for myself where I make something that’s just mine. I’m free to do it however I like since I ask for nothing from my audience and depend on no one for the means to share it (beyond, you know, paying for my website and the utilities that allow me to access my computer/Internet). If someone doesn’t like something I do or how I do it, they can deal with it by not reading, and absolutely nothing changes for me. And I think having an oasis like that is a good grounding opportunity for a writer who usually does field a large amount of feedback and compromises with plenty of restrictions.

Negative One is a quiet story that I do for nobody but me, but I invite people to participate by putting it on the Internet. If it’s your thing, I hope you enjoy it. And though I adore feedback from people who connected with what it’s saying, I don’t need my readers to speak up. I think a lot of people who like Negative One are the quiet types who don’t need to communicate with creators for the creators to communicate with them.

I recommend that any writers who are struggling with feedback or are feeling overwhelmed by expectations carve out a sanctuary like this for yourself. A story that’s yours where you can retreat if you need to. It might not seem like much, but it’s made a big difference in my life. Maybe you’ll feel the same.

Ten Years of Webcomics

In May 2005, after being inspired by some non-traditional text-heavy webcomics, I decided that I too could tell stories in graphic format, and my webcomic Negative One was born.

It was just an experiment for the first month or so; I wanted to see if I could do it, and I knew that webcomic audiences tend to get rabid if artists don’t update on time, so keeping to a set schedule was very important to me. But I settled into it easily and managed to bang out a new issue every Friday for the first month. I can handle this, I thought. And handle it I did.

For the next ten years.

On May 20, 2015, Negative One celebrates ten years of weekly updates, without having ever missed an issue, been late, or gone on hiatus. That’s 522 issues. 11,400 panels. And a lot of busy Fridays. I’m holding a contest to celebrate. There will be three prizewinners, with winners being allowed to pick from comic-related gifts/art or just store credit to any online retailer. Prizes are worth $40, $20, and $10 respectively. And there are multiple ways to enter–taking a quiz, sending me fan art, submitting questions for the characters to answer . . . it’s all in the link!



For the folks who’ve never read my webcomic before, I want to tell you a little about why it’s special and maybe entice you to read it. Since the contest to win prizes is open for over a month, there’s time to read the archives and get caught up if you want to. 😉

Negative One begins as a personal story that alternates between two young women struggling with extraordinary problems. The storytelling involves first-person reflections of their quiet adventures, rendered in light dialogue and heavy introspection, accompanying pencil sketches of the characters. (Yes, pencil sketches. It’s not inked.)

Chinese-American New Yorker Meri Lin finds herself pregnant unexpectedly, and with her parents disapproving of the baby’s white father, she battles anxiety and growing worries about raising her child. When baby Amanda is born with unheard-of superpowers and Meri Lin’s life mutates into a surreal unknown, she and her devoted partner Fred are on their own dealing with stuff they’ve never heard of outside of science fiction. Her story is about family and fear and all the joys and terrors of mothering a special child, and it also leads to an alternately inspiring and depressing portrayal of how she and Fred handle grief when their worst fears are realized.

The other storyline follows Adele, a young woman from another dimension. At the beginning of her tale she is in training to be a master prophet under the tutelage of her teacher Tabitha. She has very mixed feelings about her ultimate mission: her teacher, who is from our world, is sending her there permanently to find and teach the next human with prophetic abilities, but in her journey she’ll lose most of her important memories and never be able to return. She’ll have to live as an alien in a strange world and figure out how to build her life from there, and she’ll have to leave her family and her beloved teacher and most of her identity behind. Adele’s relationship with her teacher and somewhat estranged family, her devotion to her art and her small rebellions, and her eventual travels in our world are at the center of her story.

As the story goes on, I add three more narrators: the first two are male characters from other dimensions who travel to the human world accidentally during a sort of interdimensional earthquake, and the third narrator is Meri Lin’s baby. She starts narrating her own comics when she’s about two years old, and she basically becomes the main/focus character of the webcomic.

To be honest, the comic’s flaws include pretty poor art most of the time and nearly plotless storytelling, with a very slow pace; I know that means it really isn’t for everyone since it’s almost entirely character-oriented and rooted in the everyday existence of extraordinary people who don’t save the world or do anything but battle personal demons and develop/destroy relationships with each other. But I did create the comic for a semi-indulgent reason: I wanted to take the characters from an unpublishable fantasy series I’d written and share them with the world in such a way that I didn’t have to worry about marketability and expectations, and now it’s just a place I can tell the kind of story I want to tell with the characters I care about. So that’s what I’ve done here.

But if you like very nuanced character arcs and want to see explorations of complicated people, you’ll probably find yourself getting invested in the story once you get used to it. Meri Lin and Fred may be raising a child who isn’t like any real baby out in the world, but they also have some relatable struggles: they wrestle with discipline and “me” time and how to cultivate their intimacy despite what they’re facing, and Meri Lin learns to wear a mask to cover her grief, and when family and friends try to help her she has to learn how much to shut out and how much to invite in. Adele deals with being closer to her teacher–a foreigner–than she is to her own mother, and she shoulders crushing responsibility as a very talented prophet who also sometimes needs to make mistakes as a teenage girl. She wonders what kind of love and support can be available to someone like her when she comes to a world where she is a stranger, and when others depend on her for her mystical guidance and perspective, she’s conflicted about what it means to be needed.

My extradimensional characters Weaver and Dax have some complicated struggles too. Weaver has to deal with literal imprisonment at the beginning of his stay in our world, and later there are themes of brotherhood, isolation, and kind of being the local goofy genius. (Seriously, when Meggie showed me Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket reminded me so much of Weaver.) Dax deals with loyalty and faith/spirituality and the meaning of companionship and strength; he’s kind of a gentle giant type. And he smokes some weed. Heh.

And of course the story follows a ton of complicated stuff as Meri Lin’s baby makes her way into the world. As a very small child whose first understanding of herself incorporates the experience of scaring the crap out of people, she’s at times very fragile and at other times the strongest and most independent child you’ll ever see. She is faced with fitting in and standing out in unprecedented ways, and figuring out how to meet her own needs given some of her ordinary and extraordinary desires makes for some unique opportunities for me as a storyteller.

It may seem like a weird thing to say about a story in which three out of the five narrators aren’t human, but the story also incorporates a lot of diversity and underrepresented perspectives. Obviously all the aliens have that whole Extreme Outsider narrative, but then I do deal with more ordinary marginalization as well. Meri Lin is the daughter of Chinese immigrants (who later moved back to China), and her romantic partner is a white man, so some of her story deals with the unique issues associated with their relationship, and from raising a mixed-race child. As for the baby, when she begins to tell her story, she really has no concept of race, and isn’t frequently recognized as being mixed due to the prominence of other peculiarities, but she is.

The story also features a child from an abusive/neglectful home, a major character who is a black homeless mother who has epilepsy, another mixed-race family with children from different fathers, a white single divorced mother who’s a business owner, and a black man who’s a business owner. A lot of the supporting characters are not white and aren’t necessarily in typical living/working situations. There’s also a secondary character with severe mental impairments who receives support and care from some of the cast members, but she’s also from another dimension. The story is not about characters being Asian or being black or having illnesses, but those aspects of the characters are incorporated into their stories–as part of who they are without being a focal plot point.

I’ve spent ten years bringing little bits of this story to the Internet every Friday, and though I don’t have many loyal readers, I think most of the people still reading are quiet about their enjoyment of it; I don’t get too much interaction or comments. So I figured as part of the ten-year celebration I’d make a few posts about the comic and see if it attracts any new blood. It still gets a little spike of visitors every Friday so I know some people out there are still paying attention, but it would be so cool if some new people dropped by and read one of the things that takes up my time every single week.

Happy anniversary to meeeeeee!

Five Hundred Issues

My webcomic, Negative One, hit 500 issues on Friday.

That’s a lot of issues.

So. Uh.

Sometimes people ask me why I put so much time into a webcomic if I’m not trying to “go” anywhere with it professionally. I am indeed under no illusions that I am or will ever be a professional-level artist, and that’s not something I’m saying to take shots at my abilities so much as I’m saying I am not willing to put the time and effort into learning that craft to the extent necessary to do it as a career. It’s not something I’d ever want to do for money, even if someone handed me the opportunity without me having to ask for it; I draw as a hobby, and that’s all I ever want it to be. Most of the time, my art is mediocre, and I’m satisfied with that because it’s a vehicle for the text. Occasionally I feel like spending a little more time on a drawing and one of the frames comes out especially nice, but it’s pretty rare.

The answer is that Negative One is what happened when I realized a story I loved wasn’t publishable and never would be. I spent my college years and some time after devoted to writing a series of fantasy novels called The House That Ivy Built, and for the most part these stories were plotless (or nearly so). They were essentially about one unusual teenage girl trying to find her place in the world and come to terms with certain very difficult aspects of her identity (including superpowers), and when I developed a mature understanding of what sells to publishers, I knew without a doubt that the stories I’d written wouldn’t make the cut. Some folks would probably deal with that by, say, transplanting their beloved characters into a better story, but I didn’t want to graft other events onto this character’s life. I just wanted it to stay the way it was, even if that meant I couldn’t sell it as a fantasy series.

What Negative One represents for me is, essentially, indulgence. See, I have read my share of webcomics and saw that most of the popular ones–like most popular writing–are concise, funny, and in touch with mainstream tastes, and I figured I was way too long-winded to ever feel comfortable telling a story in those claustrophobic talk bubbles, but I have also happened upon a few that used unconventional storytelling and utilized the most versatile aspects of the digital medium to make their stories sing. I realized I could actually get away with telling a story in a visual format as long as I found a way to include my characters’ internal monologue, and it worked out great for me.

Negative One is where I get to relax a little. Tell a story without worrying that I’m doing it too slowly, or that my pacing isn’t right, or that the characters are too introspective, or that there isn’t enough action. I’ve come to realize I need a place like that. Where I’m not making the story or the art according to other people’s tastes and whims, but according to mine. It’s like a chance to blow off steam, but unlike in a journal or personal sketch diary, it’s not private. Other people can choose to include themselves to the extent they wish to, and there happen to be some readers out there who appreciate that the comic isn’t much like everything else.

It’s for sharing my characters, continuing to experience them and watch them grow, watching them interact, and making something that bucks tradition. It’s for fun, and for nostalgia, and for keeping my pencil from getting rusty. And since I have a hard time justifying carving out time for other projects or time-consuming activities that are just for my own enjoyment, I like that this occupies an inalienable niche in my life that I always work around and post faithfully every week. It’s kind of like announcing that regardless of what else is going on, I can still prioritize something that is for me.

And if it also happens to be for you, welcome to my weird little world.

On Mary Sues

Mary Sue: a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional. [x]

“Wow, what a Sue!” is thrown around a lot these days in literary criticism.  It’s always insulting.  It always implies that the author did something wrong.  And if it’s applied to an amateur or developing work, it generally means the author needs to do something to reduce the “Sueishness” of the character.

The problem arises when any character who’s exceptional is labeled a Sue.  But wait, don’t we like reading about extraordinary people?  Having a character who’s truly unique in her world can’t be the mark of incompetence, can it?

Recently, in a completely unrelated-to-writing forum, I received a nice message from someone who appreciated one of my articles online, and she added this at the end of the message:

Also, your webcomic rocks. Actual plotlines and character development? Yes please.

After I thanked her, she said a little more about it, mentioning one of my characters in particular:

Too many stories—especially webcomics—are filled with cheap action and universe-spanning prophecies, but the whole thing is ruined by the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts the author pushes around. I’m especially in awe of how you manage to handle Ivy—with all her unbelievably Mary-Sueish characteristics—in a way that makes her realistic and likable. Seriously… how do you manage it?? I try to work with characters that have half her Sueishness and every time they wind up devouring half the story like some sparkly black hole.

So, I thought about it. Hey, how do I manage it?

The character she’s talking about is indeed in the red as far as Mary Sues go. I’ve been well aware of that for a long time. To give you some idea:

  • Author self-insert: When I named the character, she got my nickname (it’s not actually EITHER of our given names), and I didn’t realize it was going to stick to both of us. . . .
  • Unusual and attractive appearance: She’s biracial (half Chinese, half white American mutt) but somehow ended up with features you don’t often see come out of that combination: blonde hair, large green eyes. Annnnd is randomly missing the pinkies on her hands and feet and has pointy ears for no reason.
  • Has unusual powers that aren’t commonplace for the character’s race: She has an unexplained and unprecedented gigantic case of telekinesis. Why? Got me!

At this point in the webcomic story, my character was a two-year-old, so she’s too young to really do most of the Sueish things people in her situation are prone to doing (e.g., angsting, being sought after by people who are drawn in by curiosity or attraction or greed, making some kind of Epic Plot based around superpowers, etc.). But she’s still got a LOT of the warning signs of Suedom, and yet the compliment above suggests I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls somehow. Well, what’s up with that?

Here is my somewhat rambly and surely incomplete guide to making your characters not suck, even if they are, by some definitions, Sues:

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Five-Year Anniversary: Negative One

So I seem to have made it to FIVE YEARS with my webcomic, Negative One.  I updated every single Friday. Without ever being late or missing an issue.  261 issues.  16,186 panels.

So I’m feeling pretty awesome about it and elected to celebrate.

I made a cake, received some gifts from friends, and collected a bunch of fan art from readers.  And I made a tribute video for baby Ivy.  You can see it all on the Five-Year Celebration Page (offsite at my webcomic, though).

Negative One: Open Window

Last week’s issue of my webcomic Negative One involved a storyline that smashed my audience over the head with a mostly unexpected sudden tragedy.  You don’t get much more horrible than missing children without involving death.

I was pretty depressed about it, even though I knew it was coming.  This is me after I finished drawing it.

So it’s been nearly a week since I posted the update and people are still e-mailing me with tales of woe. Most notably, I’m receiving e-mails from parents who have had close calls with their children similar to what I’ve depicted in #0159, and they’re all talking about how much they hope Amanda’s parents find her.

Gulp. . . .

Looks like we are all in for a really hard couple of months here, ’cause the comic is going to continue to be about this. What choice do I have? I have to deal with what I spawned now.

One parent posted a comment about the issue leaving them “sobbing at the keyboard.”

Another shared a similar experience of losing (but finding) their kid.

And one person’s just mailed to plead for Amanda’s safe return as well as to ask how this couple ended up with an “Elfquest Glider baby.” (I don’t get this reference. Er?)

Well, I cried over this, but I knew I would. I’m the author. I go through whatever the characters go through, sorta-kinda. (Sometimes it can seem pretty real.) It was touching and rewarding and . . . a little disturbing . . . to get so much mail about people crying over my work. I didn’t WANT to upset people, but I guess it’s also a sign that there are tons of people I don’t even know whose lives I am touching once a week by posting this.

I could tell from the hundreds of hits per week, but it’s more real to me when I get the letters.

I hope I have a chance to do this with my novels sometime in the near future.

Negative One: Several Reviews

My webcomic got featured in Top Webcomics, so I started getting a few more readers and, consequently, more mail about the story than usual.  Reading the mail, I have noticed several themes and things people tend to like about the comic.

  1. They tend to like the characters.
  2. They normally point out that it’s different from every other webcomic they read.
  3. And they like the realness and sincerity and inventiveness of my plot.

Some of them mention they like the art, too, but mostly almost everyone who writes me says something about having experienced a personal connection with the characters or relating to their situation.

One thing I think I do well is write convincingly about things I’ve never been through. I was discussing this with a person who contacted me about the comic recently, and after I told her I’ve never had a baby or gone to another dimension like the characters in the story have, she reacted with surprise, saying, “WHAT? I thought *sure* from this story that you were a mother!” (Paraphrased.) That’s awesome. I guess we’ll never know how convincingly I write about traveling to other dimensions. I don’t think there are any people out there who can say whether I’m doing it right or wrong. Heh.

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New Webcomic: Negative One

I love the old Ivy stories I wrote in college—from my modern fantasy series, The House That Ivy Built—but her story just isn’t cohesive enough to survive as a marketable novel, so I think one cool thing I can do with it is make a webcomic about it.  So . . . that’s exactly what I’m doing.

This alternating-story webcomic will update every Friday for the foreseeable future.  And since it’s pretty much my own thing, you can expect a lot of sort of indulgent narration.  But if you like that sort of thing, perhaps this webcomic will be up your alley.