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!

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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.

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.

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!

Failing better

Fortunately, most of us get more than one chance to get it right.

Okay, I’ve been slacking. This bothers me since it’s National Poetry Month and I had all these great ideas about drawings for poems, and I was hoping to get going on some excellent Wonder Women portraits. But all I have for you today this recycled drawing. I used it as the cover in 2005 for Monday Night, a small journal I helped co-found over a decade ago—and even then it was borrowed from a larger piece I did for a drawing class. Clearly, I’m into recycling. Easy on the planet, easy on the blog!

However I do have a somewhat decent excuse for not drawing and that is because I have been writing. A lot. In the past month, I’ve made it almost halfway through a revision of a novel I first completed last October. After I had a few readers look at that draft, they gave me some feedback, I revised again, then started sending out to agents. And I got rejected. A lot.

The first thing an artist learns is how to make failure useful.

The whole process took about three months. Send, send, send. Reject, reject, reject. Sometime near Thanksgiving, I got three rejections in one day. Within an hour of each other. Ouch.

So I got depressed. I whined. I drank. I vowed never to write again (as if) and considered burning the manuscript (oh, please). Instead, I put the book aside. Then I did some drawings, did some design, and worked on a collection of stories. And I forgot about the stupid book for a while.

Last month, I decided I would give it another shot. Truthfully, the response from agents hadn’t all been terrible; I did receive several encouraging notes that offered specific feedback and invitations to submit again. So I reread their notes and reread my manuscript. And I cringed. The draft I had sent out was my get-it-down draft—the one in which I laid out the story for myself. While many parts of it had been revised several times, overall, thing still sorta felt like a shitty first draft.

I knew what needed to be done, but I feared doing it because that would require rewriting the damn thing. Like from scratch. And deleting the entire beginning, rewriting several chapters, altering relationships, changing the tense, changing the perspective, and sinking deeper into story and character. I had to take more and greater risks. I also had to stop trying to show off, kill all the darlings, and tell the story straight.

(sigh)

This meant work. A lot of it, and I felt as though I’d already done so much. Then again, if I’m ever going to get it right I have to keep at it: work hard, try again, and fail again. Fail better. So even if the story never makes it past my initial readers, at least I feel I’ve done it justice. Rejection sucks, but nothing good in life or in art comes without struggle. If it did, it wouldn’t be worth it.

So I may be on hiatus for a while as I try again. Another 40,000 words to go, then another rewrite, then another round of submissions. Another round of rejections. But if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get closer this time. . .

Onward!

Writer vs. Illustrator

How one little image causes a War of the Selves

Today I have a new story up on a really terrific online journal called Smokelong Quarterly. What made me doubly excited about this acceptance is that SQ publishes images alongside every story and asked if I wanted to create some art to accompany my piece. Having realized that, aside from a comic or two, I haven’t illustrated my own fiction since grade school, I agreed to a drawing.

The story is a very short tale that takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting. The image I decided to depict is from the first scene, which opens with the line “We find the calf under a pile of busted-up sinks.” What I found interesting in the process of envisioning and creating the drawing is that, while writing, I imagined the scene under a flat, gray sky. But for some reason my illustrator brain saw the whole thing scorched out under a hot, dry, light, so I decided on bright sun with lots of shadows and angles. At the very least, it would make for a more challenging image to create.

Unfortunately, Writer was very attached to her flat, gray sky and got a bit peeved that Illustrator decided to take such liberties—until Illustrator calmly pointed out that nothing in the text actually indicated that the scene happens under a flat, gray sky.

So Writer goes off to brood in her own mental corner. After a while of plotting revenge against herself, she realized that a junkyard scene in the desert felt very, very familiar. In fact, it’s a scene right out of the novel she’s vowed to start revising this month. Inadvertently (or, knowing her, advertently, that plagiarist!), Illustrator had plucked the sun-bleached scene directly from the book and merged it with the story.

Illustrator grins. Writer, it’s time to start that revision. . .