Writer/Illustrator Duncan Long

- by Dara Girard

Illustration: Let Me Introduce Myself

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a writer/illustrator who seems to be mostly an illustrator these days, though I still put out a book or two each year. My favorite task is creating illustrations for book covers and magazines.

You’ve had various interests and careers such as being a rock musician, private guitar teacher, public school teacher and briefly as a mail carrier. Now aside from writing and illustrating you also create music. How do you stay motivated?

I pretty much do what I enjoy doing; the trick is making money at that. But I’ve almost always had the good fortune to make money with my writing and artwork. So the motivation isn’t as much a problem as finding the time and keeping the focus on one thing long enough to complete it .

You received an MA in music composition. What inspired you to go into writing and illustration?

I seem always to have been a writer and artist. The music bug struck later and I see it as a sort of unfortunate detour from my basic inclinations. I had a lot of fun with music, but music doesn’t generally pay well unless you’re teaching. And even if you can make money performing, it can be a lonely life on the road with strange hours and ruinous temptations. Getting back into writing and illustration work made it possible for me to work anytime almost anywhere so it’s basically the inverse of performing music or teaching, and a much freer and easy going experience.

How did you get your first cover assignment?

I don’t remember! I started a mail-order business to sell how-to books and created the illustrations for the covers. So I suppose one of those would be first. But  all through high school I was drawing for things. Likely some newsletter or booklet a school group printed for the students was likely the first. But I’m clueless as to what it was.

How about writing?

Ditto. But outside of my mail order self publishing booklets, I can remember walking back from the mail box and opening a letter from the editor at Paladin Press telling me they wanted to print a gun book I’d been working on. And Anti-Grav Unlimited was my first novel  (with Avon Books — I think they now only do  romance novels, but back then in the mid-1980s they marketed science fiction).

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It depends a little on my mood. However music generally gets short shrift because of time limitations and the fact that it brings in next to zero dollars. I use much the same compositional methods (at least in my mind – it makes no sense when I try to explain how it works) for my writing, music, and artwork.  So in a sense they’re all the same thing in different mediums. I enjoy making short demo videos for this reason; it basically combines all three into one art form. These are becoming rare, however, since they generate no money and little interest as well — sort of a double curse (ha).

Do you think that visual artists tend to think about their work different than writers? If yes, how do you use those different thinking styles in your career?

My fictional writing tends to be visual — basically I write down what I’m seeing the characters do and say. My non-fiction is less so — and sometimes seems like one gigantic term paper (not all bad, I enjoyed doing those in school).

My artwork tends to be more like writing a short story in terms of it showing just a tiny slice of story, a moment frozen in time, and it generally is finished in just days. Books on the other hand can take weeks or months. So it is more of a Bataan Death March to get a book finished. The exception is the graphic novel – I now have one under my belt (and it was without panels — so I just got my feet wet); those are bears to get done a well and the guys cranking these out are amazing as far as I’m concerned.

How do you manage your time?

Often very poorly. Currently FaceBook seems to be the time sponge. But there’s always something.

However I find I need a certainly amount of “off time” for the creative ideas to generate. Creativity is just not a punch-the-time-card sort of operation. You have to feed your brain new ideas and experiences, a sort of creative goofing off that if done properly pays off in new ideas. Sometimes watching a movie can be more important for generating ideas than sitting at the computer actually trying to come up with something useful. The trick is knowing when to stop the down time and start the creative effort.

How do you get inspiration for your covers?

Clients generally come to the table with a pretty good idea of what they want, and they are generally familiar with my style so they know the basic look we’re going to get. The trick is to make the client’s idea come to life in a dramatic way rather than letting it be the stiff corpse of an idea that’s presented in its bare bones form.

For fun I often create my own artwork (and sometimes this later gets sold — so I look at this as an investment of my time for a later pay off). One “tool” I use to generate ideas is a collection of digital artwork from other artists, photos, and so forth that struck my fancy when I saw them. These can inspire new ideas by combining ideas from various pictures, or by using one as a jumping off point.

At one time I worried that this would create “copy cat” artwork. But in fact by the time the idea gets transformed and modified, it not only is different the whole setting and composition changes. I sometimes suspect that an inkblot or other “subject” might serve just as well, but the pictures are more motivating.

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Find something you love to do and if there appears to be a market — go for it. If there’s not a market, then probably that activity should be a hobby and you should look for another “love” and weigh its merit as a potential “job” you’ll do to earn money.

I think my music is a good example of this concept: I love making music, but there’s no market for the music I make. Consequently if I want to earn a living, I have to go with writing and/or the illustration work which I also enjoy but which have the added plus of making money.

What instilled in you this kind of drive?

It’s like breathing. No one has to tell me to do it, it’s just something I do. Sometimes there’s a push to get started on a project (especially if it is a little ill-defined at the start). And with massive projects like the creation of a technical book, there’s a certain panic at the start and an urge to abandon it about mid-way through, but otherwise there’s no great self-discipline to be exercised. I love my work and do it simply because I love doing it. The tough part is a vacation or holiday when I’m not supposed to be working (but often sneak off to work just the same).

What is one question you wished people asked you and how would you respond?

May I give you a million dollars? Oh, I guess, just this once.

The strange thing is, if I had the money to do whatever I wanted, I’d pretty much do what I’m doing now. The only change would be that I’d likely be offering my novels and books of my collected works for free rather than needing to charge money to pay the bills.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Advice for those looking for a career: First figure out what YOU want to do, not what’s the quick way to make cash, the first job that appears on your doorstep. To get to where you want to be, you must know the destination. Once you have that, figure out how best to get there. Most likely that will mean learning the basics about your line of work.

That may mean going to school; it might be reading a how-to book. But learn the craft behind what you want to do rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Then try to only tackle jobs that will take you toward the goal you’ve established.

Youth gives the illusion of lasting forever. It does not. The days go by quickly and soon you’ll feel you’re in a race with death, trying to complete everything you want to do.

All those wasted days of youth can’t be called back. Each is a treasure that should never be squandered.

On a more practical level, if you’re self-employed, get half pay up front and never work for promised cuts of some big pie project in the sweet by and by. If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and it should be worth getting paid to do. It might be that you would do what you love doing for free, but there are bills to pay and until folks wanting your services for free also start paying your bills out of their own pocket, they need to be paying for your services.

I suppose I will sound harsh and mercenary to some, but working your heart out and having nothing to show for it at the end of the month will quickly destroy your creativity. Everyone needs to be rewarded for their good work

~Duncan
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Fantasy Illustration

BIO: Duncan Long has created over a thousand cover and interior illustrations for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, ILEX, Paladin Press, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and many other presses. Talk-show host Victor Thorn named Long one of the three “best graphic artists in the entire world.”

Long recently completed the 80-plus illustrations for Moonstone Book’s upcoming Werewolves of New Idria graphic novel written by John Chadwell; he’s also created concept art for the screenplay created from the graphic novel (written by Chadwell and Ron Shusett, writer/creator of Alien, Total Recall, etc.).

When not wearing his artist hat, Long writes books, and has authored 13 novels (published by Avon Books, HarperCollins), and over 80 technical and how-to manuals, most of which he also illustrated.

Find out more about his work at http://duncanlong.com/art.html and http://duncanlong.com/book_cover_blog.html

2 comments

  1. This is probably one of the most engaging interviews I have read recently. Someone like Duncan Long, so talented and productive – and yet so practical – is a rarity.

  2. Fascinating! Since I can’t draw a paper bag, I’m always intrigued by how artists can take so many different elements and turn them into powerful imagery that speaks to me.