Words of inspiration

Given that I’m both a designer and a fiction writer, it’s no surprise that I absolutely love book cover design. And given my love of all things modern (yes, I adore that little black dress of fonts, Helvetica), it’s also no surprise that I have something of an obsession with vintage Penguin covers.

If you’ve spent any time in used bookstores, you’ve probably seen them—old paperbacks featuring a simple title upon a clean Marber grid accompanied by a single striking photo or illustration.

Source: Abduzeedo. The green was featured on crime titles throughout the 1960s.

I’m not sure why I love them so much. If could be the simplicity, the boldness, the tease of that single-object cover (which is, incidentally, making a comeback thanks to one particularly popular book), or maybe it’s just that shameless Helvetica all over the place*. Whatever it is, I’m clearly not the only designer who digs it—just check out these gorgeous Harry Potter redesigns done in classic Penguin style. Squee!

Anyway, for a while now, I’ve been meaning to do some designs of my favorite quotes about creativity and writing. Since there were several I wanted to do, I decided to make a quickie project of it—almost like an assignment I might have had in design school. This meant I needed strict parameters, so I decided on these:

  1. The design must take inspiration from classic Penguin book covers, using similar photo or illustration styles and fonts. Each one will be letter-sized.
  2. The design can only use copyright-free/public domain imagery or original art.
  3. Each design must not take more than 1 hour to create.

I kind of need parameters, probably due to the fact that I’m too used to working within brand guidelines. This is true even of my writing, where I often work best under some kind of time limit, word count, or self-imposed deadline. It’s a little disturbing to realize I’m obsessed with rules, but if they help me get the job done and prevent me from procrastinating because I don’t know where to begin, then who friggin’ cares?

So instead of drawing, I have some of my favorite quotes to share. If you have any quotes about creativity you’d like to see turned into a design like these, feel free to post them in the comments. Maybe I’ll even throw in a free Facebook portrait for the one I find most inspiring!

* I’ve thought long and hard about this Helvetica obsession. I’m convinced it relates to my love of patterns, grids, and uniformity, all of which stem back to growing up on U.S. military bases around the world. Helvetica was the primary font for signage on everything from the Commissary to the Shoppette, the bowling alley, the laundromat and just about anything AAFES. Funny to think how all those Cold War-era bases were fighting Communism while at the same time employing a distinctly socialist aesthetic.



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.


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!

Another project I’ll never finish

For years, I had this obsession with a short story called “Becoming” that I was trying to write but couldn’t. Despite drafting it about 1,000 times, the right ending eluded me, so I thought it might work better as a graphic narrative/comic. I’d had success doing that with another piece I couldn’t end until I drew it and really enjoyed the process, so I thought it might help this time.

I sketched out 24 storyboards and was at the point of making some character portraits when I realized the thing might take years. The panels in my head were such beautifully rendered things—each one in full-color, with ridiculous amounts of detail—that the thought of starting the first one terrified me. Worse yet, this novel clotted up my brain, demanding to be written, so I had to make a choice: spend a few years on one comic that I might or might not finish, or dive into a book that might or might not suck.

I’d never written a novel before but since comics tend to bring out the worst in me (my obsessive perfectionism doubles, given that I’m both writing and drawing), I went with the book. Three years later, I’ve got a solid draft I’m about to revise (since it does kind of suck) when “Becoming,” now renamed “Shark Skin,” has returned to haunt me. So I figured I’d try exorcising it by drawing the first panel. Someday when I’m able to hire a sweatshop of elves who can magically tap into my creative consciousness, I might finish it. For now, I feel better mainly because I simply wanted to design a shark tattoo.

In other news: congrats to trixiepants, who wins a free Facebook portrait! Trixie offered the only comment on my last post, but it was a good one that kicked my brain in the right direction. I’ve now solved my famous faces dilemma and know who I want to draw. Yay! I won’t spill the beans yet, but the results of my scheme will be coming soon.

The famous faces challenge

A belated birthday homage for Mr. Dickens

It’s been a busy few weeks, so I haven’t had time to post though I promise I have been drawing. I completed one more graphite/digital piece to share, but I can’t post it until later this month when it goes live elsewhere on the internet.

In the meantime, I decided to pay a little homage to a great writer. Last Tuesday, February 7, was Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, and since I’ve been known to gift friends with an occasional digital portrait, I made this. Okay it’s belated, but the man has been dead for 142 years, so I figured he wouldn’t mind.

While the image of Dickens that most often comes to mind is that of his later years, with the grizzly beard and wild hair, I rather like this younger shot from 1850. He was already famous by that time, having visited the U.S. and just completed David Copperfield. By many accounts, he was a handsome-looking fellow and a bit of a dandy, so I thought it might be fun to resurrect him like this in full, dashing color.

Here’s the original image I worked from. It’s a public domain image from Wikipedia.

Clearly, I took some liberties at the details not apparent in this black and white photo. I found myself searching all over the web to figure out his eye color (responses ranged from brown to blue), and what fabrics were used in mid-19th century men’s clothing. Whatever I couldn’t figure out, I gave my best guess.

I call this particular digital drawing process my “Facebook portrait” since it’s a style I began using for social media avatars several years ago.

My first Facebook avatar (October 2007)

Back then, I began with a drawing done with good ‘ole brushes and india ink that I scanned in and colored in Photoshop. Today, I simply trace right in the program, using a mix of raster and vector lines. The Dickens portrait inspired me to figure out fabric textures, which was a good challenge and something I’ll probably work into future portraits. I also want to work more on backgrounds. In this one, I found a historic view of Fleet Street and St. Paul’s that made a nice contrast between the bright, contemporary illustration and the faded, historic photo look. I should probably do something original, but this works for now.

Anyway, my goal is to do a series of famous faces with some sort of fun, random connection. I had considered doing just writers, but that’s too straightforward. Then I thought about famous Georges (for a series called By George!) or Scotts (Great Scott!), but I need something that allows me to draw an equal number of women. I’d love a range of people from different ethnicities, races, and historical time periods—a variety of faces and stories I can tie together with a simple, quirky premise. Like a pun! I like puns.

Feel free to help me brainstorm. Anyone with a great concept and a few good names wins their own, free Facebook portrait.