Quote for the day

27-FaulknerQuote

It seems I take this advice pretty seriously. I’ve been so consumed in my own writing that the blog has fallen off the priority list.

But these inspirational graphics seem to be making their way around the interwebs, so I’m hoping to get a few more up soon. Feel free to repost and share!

Back to basics

Frida with tennis ball and tongue.

Oh, Photoshop, how do I love thee? Let me count the years. . .

Wow! Okay, so it’s been nearly two decades since I first started using my favorite software program. Back then, it was a wee 3.0, yet boasted these amazing things called layers (layers!) that any artist with a Macintosh Quadra and a love of all things flashy and new dove into and probably hasn’t resurfaced since.

These days, of course, Photoshop is nothing less than a magical machine of infinite image-manipulation. It’s a powerful program capable of wonders (and disasters), and anyone who works with graphics these days should know at least enough about it to be dangerous. Unfortunately, the seductive power of Photoshop also makes us forget that to be truly dangerous, we need a firm understanding of the fundamentals of image-making. And that sometimes, the most amazing effects are done by hand.

Frida will sit still for 3 seconds at most, which means these warm-up sketches are done faster than a Google search.

Since I’d been spending far too much time on Photoshop lately, I took an afternoon to reacquaint myself with some old school wet and dry media. I had to see if I could still pull off some decent pictures without my digital magic wand.

I recruited my loyal pup, Frida, as a model. Being a Boston Terrier, she tends to move around a lot, and this offered the additional challenge of keeping up with her.

I had to bust out the X-acto to sharpen the tip of my charcoal pencils. I was pleased to discover I could still whittle down a perfect point.

I had a bunch of chipboard and cardboard lying around, which I thought would make a nice alternative to paper. Then I dug up media I hadn’t used in a long time, including a small batch of Prismacolor markers. Does anyone still use these? I had forgotten how much I love those French grays! They still had that lovely smell of xylene in the morning—just another reason to work quickly.

Prismacolor marker. Frida looks rather cat-like as she prepares to pounce on a tennis ball.

Okay, there’s nothing earth-shattering about dog drawings. However, it was a great exercise to get out the old tools and work without the benefit of lighting effects and infinite do-overs. But another thing I’d forgotten was the sensual joys of these materials: the dry scratch of charcoal and the gorgeous surprise of an ink wash saturating the page. Even the markers challenged me not only with their toxic stink, but with the knowledge that their line would not erase. When I made my mark, I had to mean it.

Still knee-deep in a revision of my novel, I’ve been getting back to basics with that, too, and thinking about how fiction boils down to choice and consequence. After a decade of writing, I forget this sometimes as I’m dazzled by the whiz-bang shimmer of cleverness and postmodernism. By stories that are more special effects than especially affecting. As a reader, however, I find that such pieces won’t resonate with me unless I sense an emotional core somewhere, a reason for me to care beyond the spectacle. With my own work, I’ve been intoxicating myself with imaginative madness and forgotten that my characters have to make choices as well. That ultimately the shape of the book depends on mastery of the basics and a firm command of story—not simply clever illusions and allusions.

At any rate, for my drawings, I’ll be stepping back from Photoshop a bit more. There’s something lovely about the fragility of a Crow Quill nib and the screechy sound it makes. So what if my gouache gets overworked and I draw outside the lines? It’s a reminder that my hand was there.  If solid composition and technique demonstrate that the artist knows her stuff, a few imperfections only make the piece more memorable.

Couldn’t resist a touch of Photoshop color here. There’s really nothing wrong with digital tricks, so long as they’re used discreetly.

And now for lots of dots

Since the last post featured a detailed, graphite drawing, I’ve dropped back to ink for this portrait of Flannery O’Connor. I’m never quite sure if I prefer graphite to ink; like everything, it probably depends on my mood. But if you’ve read any O’Connor, you know she writes about grace and wickedness—light and dark—so ink did feel like the slightly more appropriate choice in this case.

I also wanted to try a portrait in the Wall Street Journal’s famous “hedcut” style, which replicates the classic, engraved look of currency. So I found this great video detailing the process and gave it a shot. Naturally, this method is time consuming and gives you hand cramps, so another savvy Photoshop user figured out a way to digitally replicate the effect. Like all digital shortcuts, it’s not perfect, but it does save you from placing a million dots into carefully contoured lines.

First attempt. The line quality was too comic-book and didn’t suit Flannery at all, so I decided to try a hedcut.

The result I came up with wasn’t exactly Wall Street Journal, but that’s fine. In fact, it’s great because when you’re trying to sort out your own style, it’s helpful to copy someone else’s.

I realize that sounds counterintuitive. However, the fact is you’ll never match someone else’s style yet in the struggle to do so, your own line will naturally emerge. This is why art students copy paintings from the Old Masters and why, in one of the first fiction workshops I took, the instructor assigned us to try writing in the style of our favorite author. I went for Kafka and, while my story failed, it forced me to take apart his stories and figure out why I liked them so much.

Anyway, I think my own, slightly garish and grotesque line came through. That tends to happen any time I work in ink. Either that, or things turn into cartoons. I just can’t help myself. After all, I learned to draw by copying cartoon characters.

An earlier attempt at hedcut style using bigger dots.

Fortunately, it’s time to shift gears back into some design work for a while and give my hand a chance to rest. Besides, I’ve killed all my pens.

I’ll close with a quote from Flannery O’Connor. She has a ton of great quotes (like: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”), but here’s one of my favorites:

This blog is not dead yet!

I own many a pair of blue-stockings.

I don’t know where this image came from*,  but it pretty well sums up what I’ve been doing most of my summer: writing. And frowning! As it’s been two months since my last post, I clearly have not been writing for the blog; I’ve been revising and rewriting my novel. In six weeks, I barreled through 96,000 words. Crazy? Yes. Difficult? Yes? Did I want to vomit words and stab my eyes out? Absolutely.

However, I’m pleased to report that my novel now has a new second half. I lingered a whole month editing the first 200-ish pages before I got to the fresh material. Then I banged out 41,000 in two weeks (about 150 pp).  That’s faster than NANOWRIMO speeds and will probably be a lifelong personal record as I vow never to do it again. I can’t really remember those two weeks except that my hand nearly fell off (I handwrite first drafts), I dreamed in prose, and when I wasn’t writing, eating, or sleeping, I scribbled furious and mostly incoherent notes onto every available surface. I was also a complete basket case, so my husband gets Hubbie of the Year award for not suffocating me in my sleep.

Now the manuscript is off to the agent, the waiting game begins again, and life returns to normal. Well, as normal as things get for me. At any rate, I’ll definitely be back to drawing and will likely post another Facebook portrait contest soon, so stay tuned. . !

*I swiped it from Tamara Linse’s excellent writing blog.

A big roar for editors

Monday Night 11 cranks it to 11!

Twelve years ago I was part of a small but very active writing group in Oakland, California that met on Monday evenings. None of us had published our work before and figured it might be fun to go ahead and self-publish a small, ‘zine-like journal we named Monday Night. It was a lot of fun, so the following year we decided to make a second edition including work from outside the group. And the year after that, we released a third—but this time, we only printed stories and poems from other people, effectively transforming ourselves from vanity publishers to editors.

Over the years, our group fell apart and came back in various permutations as several members (myself included) moved away from the Bay Area. But we continued to edit and produce Monday Night and, just this week, released Issue 11. It’s a labor of love that’s grown from a scrappy ‘zine of self-published nobodies to a literary journal featuring over 100 writers that recently snagged a Notable mention in the 2011 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. I don’t think any of us guessed we’d still be around over a decade later, still reading submissions and even getting a bit of local press coverage in the East Bay Express. Yet here we are.

The cover of Monday Night 3. The image was inspired by the poem “Wasps.”

It’s been great fun working on the journal, though the most educational aspect of it was learning what it meant to be an editor. Almost immediately, I discovered I don’t have the knack for it, and this is why I shifted exclusively to design and production after Issue 5 (which was already enough work anyhow). Being an editor requires patience and a certain generosity of spirit in addition to a sharp eye and a connoisseur’s love of the medium. While I like to think I have the latter, I’m not so certain about patience and generosity. I certainly didn’t have that when it came to the slush pile.

In the slush pile, the remaining 10% of not-crap is mostly so-so. It’s really only the top 1-3% that makes it all worth your time.

At some point, every writer needs to read the slush. While I despaired and began to hate life as I waded through its desperate waters, I learned a lot. I learned that many writers can be jerks and idiots when they submit their work. Most of them don’t care who or what your publication is so long as you publish their 15-page rhyming poem about cats or cancer or cats with cancer. They’ll get the name of your publication wrong, send a mass e-mail, make a million typos, or submit terrible stories about a man who creates some kind of glove weapon out of cardboard to kill his neighbor that is so absurdly terrible you’ll remember it seven years later.

Okay, I admit I occasionally admired that kind of work—stuff that was so bad it ascended to brilliance. But most of it was just bad-bad, that sort of mediocre bad that made me scroll down to estimate how much more I had to read, then sigh as I decided to keep going and hope it got better. It generally didn’t, and I inevitably felt cheated and peeved when I’d reach the end only to realize I had lost another 15-20 minutes of my life to crap.

But that’s just the slush pile, which requires little more than a strong stomach to endure. Real editorial skills go far beyond that (though a good gut is still essential). I’ve been lucky enough to work with a handful of terrific editors, so I’ve experienced first-hand how they work. When a piece isn’t quite right, a good editor never tells you what to do. They never push you; rather, they simply ask the questions that inspire you into the right direction. It’s a bit like teaching: the point isn’t to berate or dictate, but to guide someone into seeing her potential more clearly.

Of course, I’m very good at berating and dictating myself, so I make a decent self-editor. But when it comes to other writers, I lack the intuition and finesse. I’m simply too impatient and get easily frustrated (which is probably why I was no great shakes as a teacher either). So I have the utmost respect for skilled editors. It’s challenging, behind-the-scenes work that often goes overlooked, but it’s never lost upon a writer—especially after you’ve guided her toward a better story.

So hats off to you, editors, and cheers especially to my cohorts, the Monday Night editors: Jessica Wickens, Nana Twumasi, and Heather Miller, who continue to produce a great journal. Only now, like all savvy editors, they have a team of interns wading through the slush.

Represent!

The list above includes tags I’d used on this April blog post, where I discussed my first attempt to find a literary agent. I thought it made for an interesting snapshot of how most writers feel all the time: the constant fear of failure; the rewriting; the rejection; and the nagging feeling that no matter how diligently nor how long you toil to build your writerly wings, they’re doomed to fall apart once you launch into the sky.

Okay, that last bit is just my own pessimism. However, it’s true that the odds are stacked against any writer trying to get representation by sending a query (pitch letter) through the slush pile to a literary agent. Agents can receive as many as 300 queries a day. So when I decided to try a second round of submissions last month, I was fully prepared to face several months of form rejection letters and/or the deafening chirp of crickets.

So it was with great surprise that, after my first dozen queries, I received an offer of representation on my novel! I signed the contract yesterday and am now officially represented by Jen Rofé at Andrea Brown.

I am ridiculously excited about this. Andrea Brown is one of the top literary agencies for juvenile literature and, like all their agents, Ms. Rofé has an incredible record representing excellent books. From our discussions, I can tell she’s a huge fan of the story and excited to be my coach and partner as we move forward.

Preparing for triple-digit rejections, I built a spreadsheet of over 200 agents from 122 agencies. After all that work, I was offered representation within three weeks—from the first batch of queries that went out.

But let’s back up a bit. Anyone who knows me or my work might be a little perplexed to hear that I have an agent representing juvenile books. I have an MFA in fiction and my previous work has all been short stories, some of them published in university journals, so by all accounts I should be writing literary fiction for adults. Officially, that is what I’ve always done.

However when you consider that I’ve written stories about alien zombies, avenging mermaids, talking cockroaches, apocalyptic weirdos, magical monster dogs, and dorky introverts discussing the Weekly World News, perhaps the question becomes not What’s a nice, lit-fic writer like you doing writing young adult science fiction?, but rather: How did an oddball wacky hack like you ever consider yourself literary?

Recent drafts and notes. The book began on June 21, 2008 with a freewrite based on a character from a story I’d written in 2004.

Truthfully, this book came out of nothing more than the pressing desire to write a book even though I didn’t know how or what it should be about. So I forced myself to sit down, start writing, and not stop. I plucked a character from the first story I’d written in graduate school and dropped her into a new scene. I wrote by hand for two hours each week throughout the summer, vowing to fill this fat, legal-sized notebook I’d been carrying around since I was ten. At the end of the summer, I finally reviewed the 125 hand-written pages. It was a mess. But the mess had a strange momentum I liked. After Labor Day, I started over on the keyboard.

Four years, twelve drafts, some ten-thousand hours and a zillion words later, I have a book. Which is still not finished. In fact, my agent picked up the manuscript only on the caveat that I rewrite half of it as the story takes a funky turn near the middle that derails it by the end. I knew the ending was bad, but I didn’t realize the seeds of that badness were planted on page 200. The book, incidentally, is 350 pages.

For all the non-writers wondering how this generally works. I also enjoy making charts with cute icons.

This is why agents are known as gatekeepers. They know books. They’ve got the eagle eye-vision to catch all the soft spots an author tries to slip past, so they will not only point out that the ending is unsatisfactory (which every one of my six beta readers also noted), but that said lousy ending begins halfway through the story.

Ouch.

I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me. This next revision will be a massive rewrite yet oddly, I’m excited about it. The story is clarifying in my head in ways I hadn’t expected, and I know which direction to go. Plus, I’ve got a terrific coach with Olympic-level experience who very much wants us both to win. I’m still only at Stage 2 in the long journey to the bookshelf, and it might be a few more years until I get there.

Time to get back to the laptop. Onward!

And now, some poetry

Reveling in my love of old maps!

I’ve been meaning to do some drawings inspired by poetry for some time now and, in particular, the work of a very talented friend named Sheila Squillante. Both a poet and essayist, Sheila writes gorgeous narrative verses and evocative essays interweaving, among other things, memory, motherhood, love, and cooking (yes!). Recently, Dancing Girl Press released a chapbook of her prose poems called A Woman Traces the Shoreline, which is the inspiration for the above drawing.

Although the poems in this chapbook are grounded in the present day and largely reference one woman’s ritual of writing in a café while she is pregnant with her first child, they also evoke elements of the heroic journey. Lines such as “I feel the hero fighting. I am the hero fighting” and “We quest and billow. We wait” reference something epic and powerful, as if the expectant mother becomes the ancient hero—or perhaps one of those great ships carefully outlining the shores of a new and undiscovered country.

I absolutely love old maps and cartography—the star-like, navigational vectors, the wobbly coasts, and all those beasties and ominous warnings of HERE BE DRAGONS. They’re visually stunning, and I knew the drawing would start with one of them. I used my silhouette-style, as it seemed to better fit the idea of shapes and outlines and allowed the speaker in these poems to remain faceless. I liked the idea of referencing ships somehow, so I positioned the figures in a way that might suggest the three, tall masts of a clipper ship. I wasn’t certain if I should include any text, but the writing ritual is such a challenging, yet magical thing for me as well, so I included that line. Underneath it all are the lines of a yellow legal pad upon which the speaker writes and which, I think, expect to be filled.

Sheila has another chapbook coming out in August called Women Who Pawn Their Jewelery. It will be published by Finishing Line Press, and although I didn’t get this blog post up in time for her pre-sale rush (it’s been a crazy week, alas!), you can still pre-order it like I did. Like Shoreline, she had me at a great title, so I asked if she might send the title poem so I could be inspired by it to do another drawing. And she did!

I probably need to exercise a bit more restraint on the use of background patterns. But sometimes, I just can’t help myself.

In this poem, a pawn shop owner speaks of the women who trade their tokens of past loves and lost moments for “a flat cash value.” The mix of emotions is clear; these women “come after death, divorce or break-up/to sell jewels as bright and various as their pain.” The metaphor of gems, memories, and women’s bodies is expertly done, and no doubt representative of the tender lyricism the rest of the chapbook will bring. I look forward to reading it!

Next up on my list is A Day in Boyland by Jesse Randall. I’m also looking forward to my good friend Jessica Wicken’s collaboration with Della Watson called Everything Reused in the Sea, which is coming out later this summer. (Do you see the octopus on that cover? Heck yes, I’m reading that!)

I’m currently looking for other terrific, contemporary poetry to read, so if you’ve got a recommendation, please let me know. I’d love to do more poetry-inspired work. Hooray for poems!