Writing on a Budget: Art Apps

Sometimes writers draw/illustrate as well as write. Sometimes they illustrate their texts (picture books, graphic novels, illustrated novels).

While some photo apps can be used as a drawing app (like Photoshop or Affinity photo), not all are good at it (for instance, Photoshop Elements has no bezier tool, which means it doesn’t have a pen tool to draw curved lines). Unfortunately, dedicated drawing apps can be pretty spendy, and the free ones are few and far between.

As with the other posts, I don’t own Apple products, so specific iOS apps like Procreate will not be covered.

But first…tablets, pen tablets and pen displays.

Yes, you can make digital art with a mouse. No, it’s not the same as using a tablet or a pen display. Pressure sensitivity is important, and that’s something you can kinda mimic using a mouse, but not replace.

Regular tablets like an iPad have pens and apps that work well together, and artists create wonderful things with them. Not everyone can afford an iPad, however.

Photo by George Milton from Pexels

This is where pen tablets come it. Pen tablets are tools that lie on your desk like a mousepad, but instead of a mouse, you use a pen to move the cursor about on your monitor. The pressure of the pen against the tablet allows artists to create thick and thin lines, draw lightly or heavily, etc.

Pen tablets are cheaper than regular tablets and pen displays, and once you are used to moving the pen while staring at your monitor, they’re exceptional tools.

Wacom’s Intuos is a popular pen tablet, but Huion Inspiroy and XP-Pen Deco series are also solid, but cheaper, choices. These pen tablets have pen sensitivity without the price of a regular tablet or pen display, ranging from $25 to just over $100. The larger the size, the more the cost.

I never did get the hang of pen tablets. I felt disconnected from my work, and practice did not make perfect. So I saved up for a pen display. Pen displays are more expensive than pen tablets, but you can draw directly on the screen with a special pen, similar to a regular tablet. Unlike regular tablets, though, these displays are monitors, and have monitor sizes from 13″ to 24″.

Photo by Daniele from Pexels

Because of screen sensitivity and the need for accurate color, these displays are more expensive than typical monitors. You can save some money on refurbished ones, but you still need a couple hundred bucks for a 13″ pen display (which is still cheaper than an iPad. Still, budget-wise writers/artists will find the pen tablets more attractive because of the lower price tag).

Wacom is considered the industry standard for both pen tablets and pen displays. Huion products are just as good for half the price, and XP-Pen a bit cheaper than that. There are other, even cheaper displays/tablets out there; I caution you to do your research. Not all are created equal.

I use Huion pen displays, and I’m pretty happy with them.

Oh, and if you are wondering about your touch screen laptop–regular touch screens do not have the pressure sensitivity artists need.

On to apps!


Lord’s Council Building by me

Artbreeder is a bit different than the other apps on this list. It’s a browser-based software that uses AI to create portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, etc. It blends pics together and creates something new. The software learns from each pic that is created, to produce better images.

To make an image, you manipulate parameters (for portraits, things like age, hair color, etc, while for landscapes you change sunlight, mountain height, etc). With a few clicks of a mouse, you can create a fantastic-looking image. You can even upload your own portrait, and see how Artbreeder artifies it!

Artbreeder has its frustrations and limitations; for instance, the gender stereotypes it uses to create portraits can be very annoying if you, say, have a male character with long hair. There is also a “look” to the images; even my husband can tell an Artbreeder-created pic on random Instagram posts. You can make a more unique image, but it takes a bit more time messing with parameters than some wish to spend.

Despite the annoyances, what Artbreeder does for the average writer, especially non-artistic ones, is provide a fast, easy way to create a unique image related to their stories. Sometimes, it’s just more economical to use it.

Artbreeder is free to use, though uploads and downloads are severely limited at that tier–but if you only need a couple of images a month, there’s no reason to subscribe. The site has different tiers for a monthly fee, starting at $8.99.


Krita is a free painting app for Mac, Windows and Linux.

Krita is targeted towards painters; it is not a replacement for a program like Photoshop. If your style is more painterly/concept art-y, or you like to create textures and patterns, it’s a good app to try out.

It’s not the smoothest app out there, but for free, it’s a great program. It has a gentle learning curve, but I would still mess around with the program and get familiar with it before beginning any serious artwork.

Clip Studio Paint

Shiobe by me

Clip Studio Paint is for Windows, Mac, and mobile devices. It has a free trial if you want to check it out. It also has several options for payment, including monthly plans from $0.99, depending on device. If you purchase their product outright, it’s a one-time payment. So Clip Studio Paint is yours forever for under the cost of one Adobe CC monthly bill.

For authors who like to draw and illustrate and lean towards 2D/comic/manga style or digital painting, this program is awesome. It has brushes, pens, and fantastic manipulation of vector lines (an absolute must for comic/manga drawing, IMO). You can access their store to get free extras, like brushes and such.

Purchasing the EX version is much more spendy, but you gain access to animation, page layouts and 3D models. If you are serious about creating comics/manga, you might want to look at the monthly plans for EX, which start at $8.99. Still spendy, but more doable.

I do all my line drawing in Clip Studio Paint. Sketching in Photoshop then transferring to Illustrator was once my go-to workflow, but due to an Illustrator bug, it’s now unusable with my pen displays. I decided to check CSP out because I needed a vector program.

I’m glad I did. Being able to easily erase and manipulate vectors sold me on it. So I now sketch on a raster layer then refine on a vector. You can color your work in CSP too, and they have a great fill feature where the program doesn’t have to have the outlines closed to properly fill in a shape. Awesome.

If you like to digitally paint, they have a lot of painterly brushes, too. They run contests, and seeing what others create using the program is a great source of inspiration.


Sketchbook was discontinued by Autodesk in 2021 and spun off to other developers, Sketchbook Inc. I haven’t used the program since this development, so I’m not certain about updates and changes and if it works the same. It was a decent program under Autodesk, especially for free; as of this writing, the new developers are charging a one-time payment of $19.99.

Sketchbook Inc. is promising loads of new content, and since the price isn’t bad for a drawing app, this is one to keep in mind. It has hundreds of brushes and a predictive smoothing element to keep lines nice and smooth. I enjoyed using it when it was part of the Autodesk lineup, and I hope the new company keeps the quality up.

Affinity Photo / Designer

I’ve covered Affinity before. Their apps are cheaper than Photoshop, and if you wait for a sale, you can get a favorable discount that lets you purchase them individually for under $40.

Affinity Photo is a raster program like Photoshop. It has versatile brush creation and a fantastic zoom feature. Designer is a vector program like Illustrator, and is good for outlining art. Together, you can create some nice pieces.

Affinity software has familiar interfaces for those who have used graphics software before. Getting their product for photo manipulation as well as drawing is a great two-fer–just know, that with Windows 10 and 11, an audio enhancement app called Nahimic can play havoc with it. If menu items start to disappear and other menu options get blurry, you need to disable it. (Nahimic and NVidia aren’t good friends, and can cause problems for other drawing and audio software as well).

ArtRage Lite

ArtRage Lite is $29.90 as of this writing. It is a digital painting program that is meant to be easy to use. The Lite version has most of the same features as their more expensive versions, but it targets users who don’t want to create their own brushes or textures, and prefer to use things as-is.

ArtRage was once the painting app rage, and designed for all ages and experiences. They have Mac, Windows and mobile versions. It’s worth checking out if you want to get started, or already enjoy, digital painting.

Wrap Up

There are a lot of other apps out there, especially ones targeting iPad and iPhone users (Apple’s supposed to be the go-to for digital artists, after all). They’re worth a look, but make certain that, if you purchase something, it’s still being developed. There are a lot of dead apps out there you can still download and use, despite the fact they no longer are active.

*featured image by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels


Shiobe Rising: The Wellspring Dragons Book 1Trouble in Tindrel: The Wellspring Dragons Book 2 and The Glass Volcano: The Wellspring Dragons Book 3 are available in Kindle format. Lapis of Nicodem, a serialized dark fantasy, is available for free at World Anvil. Follow me, Kwyn Marie, on Facebook and Instagram. Check out my author website, and the Wellspring Dragons book site as well as the Lapis of Nicodem book site And if you like what you see, buy me a KoFi!

Writing a Serialized Fantasy

My Lapis of Nicodem story is a bi-weekly dark fantasy serial. Why did I decide to write a chapter every two weeks? Well, I liked the story, but I didn’t think it would become one of my books. What to do with it, then?

I decided to create a serial with it.

By August 2020, I had published the first two books in my Wellspring Dragons series, and needed a break from the story. I still wanted to write, and while I have other tales that will eventually become books, I didn’t wish to undertake another one so soon. A serial seemed the perfect format for my situation.

World Anvil had just come out with their Manuscripts software, and made a space on their site for authors to post the books published with it. It seemed like a great way to attract readers and keep myself writing while on a brief hiatus from my other tale. But how, exactly, would I accomplish it?

as Shanda Nelson, I do all the illustrations for my stories

I set some ground rules for the serial. The chapters would be around 15 pages each, no less than 12, no more than 20. I would publish a chapter every two weeks, and I would publish even if I did not feel quite ready to do so. Why? I didn’t want to worry on a chapter for weeks on end–basically, falling to the “perfect is the downfall of the good” mentality. I would have the first draft completed by the end of the first week, edit it through the second, and re-read it the night before and the morning of publishing, over and over again. I would publish by 2:00 PM Pacific Time every other Friday. The entire project would be free to read, and I would create a world wiki to accompany it.

Writing on the timetable has been a challenge. There were weeks where I sat before my computer screen the Thursday before publishing, with a few words written and a complete creative block. Sure, I (mostly) knew what needed to happen. That didn’t make writing about it any easier. I would discuss my story with my husband, and sometimes that would be enough to prick my brain into writing mode. Sometimes I scanned artwork, listened to music, read, while trying to write words and make them sound like a coherent story. I hated those weeks, because I like to re-read my edits twenty to thirty times, and pushing the deadline made certain those re-reads did not happen.

Other weeks, I had already completed and edited the chapter by the first weekend. It allowed me to write ahead, so to speak. But mostly, I stick to my original schedule.

Feedback is not the same, either. If my deadline is the next day, having someone scan my chapter isn’t going to happen. And I’m OK with that. I find it liberating. I’m writing a story that I like, the way I want to write it. Maybe it is for an audience of one–me–but that hardly means no one else will enjoy it. Yes, mistakes are inevitable, but not as many as one might assume (I still use Aeon Timeline to keep track of dates and the like, and run spell/grammar check software. And yes, people–your editor uses the same spell/grammar software to check your work. I really don’t need an editor telling me to use the Oxford comma when the software does that just fine on its own, and I can ignore it without feeling guilty).

I’ve made certain to keep in mind, that each chapter needs to move the plot along. That’s good writing anyway, but it becomes really important when you are creating installments instead of handing readers a completely finished product. If you have a couple hundred pages of story, you can be slower in revealing the story because the wait to reach resolutions are only a few page-turns away. Part of this is a rethinking of cliff hangers. I look at them in a different way for my serial, because the next installment is not just a page-turn away, but two weeks distant. I need to create ways to keep readers interested in returning for more.

This has led me to craft individual chapters as entities unto themselves. They are far more self-contained than those present in my longer books. That being said, I still have a longer story to tell through the shorter ones that populate the chapters, and this keeps the flow between them. I know where the serial is going to end up. Getting there is the journey every pantser loves.

Overall, I’m pleased with how the story is progressing. It hasn’t always been easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. So check out Lapis of Nicodem and while you’re over at World Anvil, look at some of the other writing going on there.

Shiobe Rising: The Wellspring Dragons Book 1 and Trouble in Tindrel: The Wellspring Dragons Book 2 are available in Kindle format. Lapis of Nicodem, a serialized dark fantasy, is available for free at World Anvil. Follow me, Kwyn Marie, on Facebook and Instagram. Check out my author website, and the Wellspring Dragons book site as well as the Lapis of Nicodem book site. And if you like what you see, buy me a KoFi!

A Thought on Secrets in Storytelling

Been thinking about plot surprises recently. I’ve been watching Fairy Tail, a Japanese anime based on a manga series by Hiro Mashima, because the pandemic has given me an opportunity to watch it where I left off years ago. I like Fairy Tail, a lot. I like the interactions between characters and the focus on unity accomplishing grand things. I don’t like the Ankhseram curse secret-turned-major-plotline. I find it annoying and not well thought out.

Supposedly, those inflicted by the curse kill everything around them until they don’t see value in life, then they stop. It’s a contradiction. But here’s the thing (at least in the anime; I haven’t read that far in the manga). Zerif, in his guise as Spriggan, says that it’s safer not to care about his subjects–which means he’s caring about their lives. Which means everyone around him should be dropping like flies. They aren’t. So much for a killing contradiction.

Maybe this is explained away a bit further into the story. But currently, I keep wondering: What’s the purpose of the curse? Is the god Ankhseram punishing the individual? How is a disregard of life supposed to accomplish that? Why is the curse killing all living things (plants included) for simply being around this person? Isn’t that punishing innocents? While gods can be that kind of a jackass, I don’t get the impression that’s the author’s intent.

It’s made me think about some of the secrets in my stories. Do they make sense? Are they just an excuse to motivate the plot in a certain direction because I’m out of other ideas? How valuable are they? Sure, some people might still think the secrets are stupid, but I’ll at least feel I’ve fleshed them out before I invest heavily in them and realize they don’t quite work the way I planned.

When it comes down to it, plots are hard, especially in long, complicated stories. This is a place where plotters, who carefully plan out their tales, have an advantage over pantsers, who free-wheel it and see what happens (seat-of-your-pants writing). Planning the story beforehand can definitely catch some of the unexpected weirdness of plot points and correct them before a single word is typed. Writers like me, however, who are plantsters–authors who do a bit of both–but fall heavily to the pantser’s side, need to be more creative in their corrections, which can happen long after the plot is set and an issue pops up. Rewriting an integral plot secret is hampered if its previous incarnation is already published.

At least when it comes to very important plot points, it’s a good idea for all writers to think about the future outcomes in their stories. It’s very hard to steer the car in the direction you want to go, if you don’t know where you’re going in the first place. While that road can be incredibly fun and exciting and surprising, driving unexpectedly over a cliff isn’t.

Shiobe Rising: The Wellspring Dragons Book 1 and Trouble in Tindrel: The Wellspring Dragons Book 2 are available in Kindle format. Lapis of Nicodem, a serialized dark fantasy, is available for free at World Anvil. Follow me, Kwyn Marie, on Facebook and Instagram. Check out my author website, and the Wellspring Dragons book site as well as the Lapis of Nicodem book site. And if you like what you see, buy me a KoFi!

Fantasy Writing: What to Explain

I’ve read a lot of advice for and from writers over the years. One article that I read many, many years ago (don’t recall by who), stuck with me because I thought it was sort of absurd. The author claimed that every little thing in a story needed to be explained in-depth, in story, for readers to understand the tale as it was meant to be understood. This writer thought describing a starship to the minutest detail, even it took several pages, would engage audiences and immerse them in the world, rather than elicit boredom.

At the time, I shrugged because I thought it extreme, but I’ve seen the question crop up now and again, especially concerning fantasy and world building. Some authors believe a multi-page history of terms and concepts should be written, others believe that the reader can figure out certain ideas through context.

I fall more on the “readers have a mind, they should use it” side. I believe readers can see a word or concept in context and figure out the meaning without a wiki-style definition. I remember how many people asked “What does ‘sera’ or ‘n’wah’ or ‘ceruval’ mean in the Elder Scrolls games?” I have found one can pick it up from context without having to know an exact definition. If a mace-wielding bandit rushes at my character screaming, “N’wah!” there’s a good chance it’s not a nice, polite word. If a polite high elf calls my character ‘ceruval’ in a calm, respectful voice, there’s a good chance it’s a term of acknowledgement. I don’t really need to know that ‘n’wah’ means asshole or something similar to understand what’s going on (mace-wielding bandit isn’t happy I’m in their cave and is attacking!).

Concepts can be a bit trickier to introduce without explanation, but sometimes I think allowing a reader to create something of a character or plot on their own can lead to a more immersive environment. I think it makes them more involved with the characters and story. For instance, Cloverfield succeeded (for the most part) as a movie because audiences had to guess from the beginning what kind of monster could cause such destruction. People’s imaginations came up with what they, themselves, considered scary, and it made the movie more intense. The director’s vision of the monster wasn’t necessarily what the audience found terrifying.

Which is scarier: Extant monster or red eyes behind the trees?

I realized this when I first watched the 1963 movie The Haunting. Special effects were not exactly CGI at that point, and monsters and ghosts and goblins came across as silly much of the time. To avoid this, the director decided to show the results of what the entity did, not the entity itself. Let’s look at the classic scene, of the wooden door bending inwards after the loud banging sound of footsteps stopped outside it. What entity could do that? Was it really the ghost of a woman? Would the door break? If it did break, what would the crumbling structure reveal? I created a very scary ghost all on my own, without a visual from the movie. The actual ghost wasn’t needed. I believe it made the movie that much more frightening, because I came up with something that I personally found scary.

I do this in my own writing. At one point, I have creatures that emit cold chasing the characters, but they cannot see them, so the reader doesn’t know what they look like. The reader can imagine the creature and its appearance, and their image of the monster will likely be scarier for them than any lengthy description on my part. This doesn’t work all the time, but it can in some situations. Why not use it?

It’s true, some fans prefer everything spelled out, to the letter. That’s what world-building wikis are for😊

Shiobe Rising: Wellspring Dragons Book 1 and Trouble in Tindrel: Wellspring Dragons Book 2 are available for download in the Kindle and Barnes and Noble ebook stores. If you like what you read, check out the Wellspring Dragons World. Support me by buying me a Ko-fi!