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.

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!

Medicine for Melancholy

Ray Bradbury died today. At 91, he’d lived the life most writers only dream about: a long and healthy one filled with books and magical worlds he’d created and generations of readers inspired by them. He was that rare writer who worked in genres typically ignored and disdained by the literary establishment—namely, science fiction, fantasy, and horror—yet garnered critical acclaim for his work. He was one of my favorites.

Bradbury was also one of the few writers I remember reading as a child yet still enjoyed immensely as an adult. In fact, I have a very specific memory of reading “All Summer in a Day” when I was 9 years old. I couldn’t believe a story that short could move me so much. The idea of Margot locked in the closet as the sun shined on Venus haunted me for decades. When I returned to the story after years of writing my own fiction, I marveled at his prose–clean and deceptively simple but, at the same time, incredibly alive with the moment, like this scene:

The children lay out, laughing, on the jungle mattress, and heard it sigh and squeak under them, resilient and alive. They ran among the trees, they slipped and fell, they pushed each other, they played hide-and-seek and tag, but most of all they squinted at the sun until the tears ran down their faces, they put their hands up to that yellowness and that amazing blueness and they breathed of the fresh, fresh air and listened and listened to the silence which suspended them in a blessed sea of no sound and no motion. They looked at everything and savored everything. Then, wildly, like animals escaped from their caves, they ran and ran in shouting circles. They ran for an hour and did not stop running.

What I also love about Bradbury was his dedication to storytelling, literacy, and education. He was wary of technology but believed in the power of imagination and the inherent goodness of humanity. He also encouraged other artists to dream big and work hard.

One of my favorite quotes from Fahrenheit 451 is this: “Books were only one type of receptacle where we started a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical about them at all. The magic is only with what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.”

But he didn’t just encourage writers and readers. His pithy quotes on how to push yourself into living the life you must easily apply to everyone.

Important reminders on how to fully live from a man who lived fully. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury.

Life before death

Today marks what would have been the 50th birthday of David Foster Wallace, a really terrific writer I admire very much. He died in 2008.

While he’s usually depicted with his signature bandana (which, the way he wore it, reminded me of Madame Defarge), I decided to draw this image snagged from Amherst’s memorial page. He still looks like a scruffy professor moonlighting as a drummer in a grunge band, but he also looks serious and smart and maybe even a little happy.

For the background, I collaged together scans of books and galleys of his work he’d marked up. Many of these are from the Harry Ransom Center, which now maintains his archive. Wallace was a notorious marginalia scribbler, so much that it appears he’s having a dialog with the text itself. I find this fascinating and beautiful—not simply for the act, but for the palimsest-like texture it creates. The page with the big “TK” on it appears to be an early version of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” one of my favorite essays.

Wallace is largely known for his fiction, but if you’ve never read him before, I’d recommend starting with his nonfiction (like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster). It’s just as hilarious and brilliant as his novels and stories but probably more accessible to the average reader. His fiction is challenging but worth it, which is why his fans tend to be less of the tepid, “Yeah, he’s okay,” variety and more of the “I fricking love him,” variety. Clearly, I’m in the latter camp.

One thing everyone should read, however, is his 2005 Kenyon College address. Never have I heard the importance of a liberal arts education articulated so clearly, and its core message—to remind yourself: “This is water”—is my daily mantra. Truth is about life before death. It is, indeed.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Wallace.