Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Seeing with a New Perspective

How's everybody been? I've got spring allergies and zero energy for anything other than reading. The best I can do right now is say I got out of bed. I could blame some of these ailments for ruining my last outing with Urban Sketchers, but the truth is I had a lousy time because I could not, could not, get a grip on something that has plagued me my entire creative life: I can't draw perspective.

Perspective has always been a difficult subject for me. In theory I understand the concept: horizon lines, vanishing points, objects getting smaller and smaller the farther away they are from the viewer, but I've never been able to get it to work. I've even taken entire classes on the subject, but to no avail. Maybe it's something to do with a lack of hand-eye coordination, or a rogue gene that doesn't allow me to comprehend angles. Whatever it is, it's made me both dread and hate the topic, which is completely contrary to my desire to draw buildings and urban landscapes, especially when I travel.

The situation zoomed into sharp focus when I went to the Albuquerque History Museum with my urban sketching group. No matter how hard I tried, I could not capture the scene I wanted to draw: an early New Mexico pioneer wagon installed in a room full of saddles, vintage clothing, maps and other memorabilia. The wagon attracted me the minute I saw it draped with fur pelts, Navajo blankets, and carrying a load of clay and iron cooking pots.  I thought it would make a great picture using graphite and colored pencils--the only mediums we were allowed to bring inside the museum. Except when I sat down to sketch, I couldn't place the wheels, the axle, the sideboards, the seat, the frame or those fuzzy bunny furs anywhere close to where they should be. Over and over again I drew in the lines, erased them when they didn't meet where they were supposed to, and then repeated the process until I gave up and sulked all the way to the coffee bar. In other words, I had a very bad perspective on just about everything.

When I got home I knew I had to get help--anything to finally learn. After some intensive Googling and checking out reviews on YouTube, I bought Matthew Brehm's Drawing Perspective. With any luck, it's going to change my entire perspective about perspective and please, please, make it fun

So far, I'm impressed with what the book has to offer. If there's such a thing as a good book that will teach me "how to see and how to understand" I think this will be the one. The chapters are arranged in a logical order of 1-point, 2-point, and multiple-point perspective, as well as up, down, curvilinear (didn't even know that one existed) and everything in between. The watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations are gorgeous, the instructions are clear, and there's a series of practice grids and fill-in-the-blank exercises at the back of the book. I'm feeling hopeful.

I plan to start working with the book this weekend, and then try bringing it to work with me to use during lunch. At the same time, I'm following the author's advice that I start looking at the world around me in search of those vanishing points and parallel lines. 

I'm excited to begin my foray into the world of straight lines and realistic architecture, but I'm also a little conflicted: a part of me doesn't want to get too perfect. After all, I'm not applying to architectural college; I just don't want my urban landscapes to be overly droopy, or to imply that I'm too lazy to learn a valuable technique and skill. Similar to my approach to writing, I want to know the rules so that I can eventually, and when necessary, break them: if I want wonky buildings and unconventional characters to live in them, I want to paint and write them on purpose! After all, a bit of whimsy can often be just the thing to make any creative work your very own.

Tip of the Day: To go along with my new course of study, I've been collecting my favorite resource: magazine cut-outs. This time I've gone in search of urban landscapes from every viewpoint I can find. I'm building up (no pun intended) a pretty good library of photos, and I think they'll be super helpful as I work my way through Brehm's book. They're also going to serve double-duty as great writing prompts. Whether you're writing, painting, or designing jewelry, nothing beats a good photo-reference file.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Re-Writing My Picture Book WIP (the Way I Really Want To)

Here's a secret: whether I'm writing a query letter, putting together a manuscript package, or just drawing a tree, every time I "follow the rules" I fail. Yet every time I take matters into my own hands and do it "my way," I get a positive response. So why didn't I listen to my own advice when it came to writing my most recent children's picture book? 

The answer is pretty simple: I got scared. Scared of doing it wrong (there's so many great picture books out there, how could I possibly get it right?); scared of looking like I didn't know what I was doing (even after studying a zillion books on marketing and submission); and especially scared of scaring little children with my potentially traumatizing text. I didn't trust myself one little bit.

The situation was made much worse when I attended a conference on writing for children. My reason for going was to learn how to shape up my manuscript to best fit the market. To make sure I understood what the editors were asking for, I took careful notes: 

  • They wanted stories with a "Mama" character. Okey-dokey, my main character did have a mama--check that as a "yes, can do." 
  • They wanted lots of visceral gritty-growly "noise words" (Buzz? Kerplunk? Smash? Does "meow"count?). 
  • They particularly enjoyed spooky-creepy stuff (no worries about traumatizing the tots). 
  • And they especially requested anything that reflected bad behavior. (Hmm. I don't like bad behavior . . . very much . . . ) 

In other words, they really wanted authors to get those childhood frustrations and thwarted emotions onto the page and out in the open. 
The only problem was, none of their requirements fit my manuscript, Where are the Cats of Barcelona?, a story that takes a little girl through the beautiful city of Barcelona in search of a kitten to call her own. Other than Mama, I didn't have any of the must-have requirements: no tantrums, no ghosts, and definitely no biting, scratching, or rude words. Suddenly my book seemed like a major loser.

To compensate for these glaring omissions I began to rewrite my story, this time with as much awfulness as I could squeeze into the limited word length. Short of Mama getting drunk, it was a pretty strong effort. The only problem was it wasn't MY story. Mama ended up being a total wet blanket nay-sayer; my main character morphed into a whiny spoiled brat, and even the cats she found weren't very attractive. Now, re-reading the manuscript two years later, I'm not surprised it was rejected more times than I care to admit.

The good news is I've now put all that good advice thoroughly behind me. In its place I'm happy to report that I've gone back to my original version: a story that is sweet, dreamy, and best of all--quiet. It's the perfect read-along bedtime story--the one kind of book all the editors who spoke at the conference agreed will never go out of fashion!

There are still some things I want to work on such as perfecting my line breaks and getting the flow just right, but these are things that center on design and craft. My current revisions are based on what will suit the story, not to pull in elements that supposedly fit the market but have nothing to do with me or my book. And who knows, my next step might even be to attempt the illustrations!

Tip of the Day: The first reader you should always write for first is yourself. Whether you're writing a 600-page historical epic or a 600-word fairy tale, write for you! The only thing that will ever truly make the market happy at the end of the day is good writing, so don't be afraid to edit, tweak, and polish, but say what you want to say before you pull out the red pen. Always stay true to your original, heartfelt vision.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Fall in Love with Your Personal Project

Happy Valentine's Day! And what could be a better day for celebrating all the passion and love we pour into our manuscripts, journals, canvases, and sketchbooks alike? However, as much as we might be crazy in love with our work destined for publication and gallery showing, how much attention are you giving to a "personal project"? You know, the one that might never end up on a bookstore shelf or win a prize in a juried exhibition? Chances are, it's probably your very most favorite. I know my personal projects certainly are.

In case you're wondering what exactly is a personal project, I thought I'd start by explaining what it is not: it's not a dud. It's not something so bizarre or scary you keep it hidden, afraid of what people will think of it or your sanity. And it's certainly not something so poorly done that you're ashamed of it. Rather, it's a project you love in spite of the market, an effort that you attempt fearlessly, trusting your instincts, knowledge, and personal taste to carry you right through to the end. In other words, it's your absolute heart's desire: The book you want to read. The painting you want to hang on your own wall. The volume of sketches that feed your soul and imagination like nothing else you have ever encountered.

Often a personal project can take the form of an art journal or similar, there's usually a more structured process going on. For instance, you might want to create a children's picture that you both write and illustrate, as well as design the size, format, and covers from front to back including the end papers. Every single element of the book is uniquely yours. Other examples of personal projects could be things such as:
  • A themed and beautifully executed sketchbook. It could be based on a nature study, birds, travel experiences, fashion . . . whatever you love.
  • An experimental or graphic novel along the lines of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
  • A blog or website. Yes, your blog can definitely be a personal project, used as a place to explore, try out new ideas using new technologies, testing and challenging your digital skills.
  • A series of craft items: pottery, jewelry, sewing, weaving, etc. Any project using materials, colors, or mediums you would usually bypass for not being "commercial" enough but that you've always wanted to try.
Some of my own personal projects have fallen into all of these categories: my altered book project (still a work-in-progress); my "Silly Little Birds" sketchbook; my "30 Days of Kimono" art journal, and my current Asian-inspired painted ceramic work. I have no idea if any of them will ever be "For Sale" but they are all projects I had to work on, or lose my sense of self.

The best part of working on a personal project is it can get you through times of creative slump or ennui. As my husband loves to say: A change is as good as a rest, and working on a project miles out of your comfort zone for no real reason other than you love it can be a creative life-saver. If you're unsure of where to start or how to decide on a project, consider some basic guidelines:
  • Choose a subject you love, but have never felt confident enough to sell.
  • Use your personal project as a way to create daily rituals, discipline, and find pleasure in going to your studio or home office. This can be especially valuable during the times you're not feeling as inspired or motivated as you'd like to be.
  • Refrain from avoiding the work or even beginning it because it's "not for sale." Instead, unless you're on some impossibly tight deadline to complete a commercial project, try to give your personal project top priority. It's a great warm-up exercise before returning to other manuscripts or assignments you're working on.
  • It's fine to dive into the middle of a project, wanting to do all the fun parts first, but try to give the project a sense of coherency with an eventual beginning, middle, and end. Work toward giving the project a sense of being a finished body of work. Don't cut corners, become lazy, or feel you can be stingy with supplies because "no one else will see it." 
Most of all, keep in mind that your personal project should reflect the very best of you and your creativity. Make it shine, make it sing, and give it as much TLC as you can spare. Go for it!

Tip of the Day: Although the whole idea of a personal project is to make it personal, I'll bet you a silk pajama (to borrow from Ogden Nash) that some of your favorite published work started out as a project the author or artist wanted to keep private and not for sale. At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with submitting or selling what began as a personal project if that's what seems appropriate when you're finished. Just don't let the idea of selling scare you from starting or falling into the "perfection" trap, one that keeps you from expressing yourself fully with all the individuality you can muster.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Lessons from an (Unused) Travel Sketchbook

I've just returned from a week-long business trip to Southern California. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to draw, paint, and write, I had absolutely zero time to even open the small sketchbook I took with me. Not being able to dive into some on-the-go creativity was heart-wrenching: all those palm trees, coastline views, Mediterranean mansions. . . all to be abandoned as on to the next meeting I went. 

The best I could do on any given day was try to memorize what I was seeing and hope to use some of those memories at a later, and more convenient time. My fingers were itching to get out my watercolor pencils, but to no avail. There was always another place to be, another traffic jam, and the weather was freezing!

Now that I'm back home, I'm evaluating what it meant to not have any restful down-time during my trip. Maybe there was a good reason for the extreme lack of playful opportunity. Rather than fussing and lamenting over my situation, maybe I was given the chance to experience:
  1. Acceptance. From the stop-and-go traffic, to the food on my plate (as usual, a lot of sandwiches and pizza thanks to my very limited vegetarian choices), to having a cold, and then having to move hotels after the first night (the resort we'd booked was anything but), I found it was easier--and more restful--to go with the flow rather than bemoan the hiccups. Even without the chance to draw (or read, for that matter), everything turned out good. In fact, it was better than good: it was interesting. That's a valuable attitude to bring to any creative project: allow myself the chance to observe, take it all in, and accept whatever happens without expectations.
  2. Curiosity. Although I'm a former California resident and frequent visitor, it's been several years since I've been back. A lot has changed--it always has been a dynamic place--and I wanted to see and investigate absolutely everything I could. In some respects it became more important to keep moving, searching out new places to see and experience, rather than to sit in one spot and draw. I felt alive and inspired by the constant movement, even if I couldn't take advantage of that feeling in the way I wanted to.
  3. Nostalgia. It was strange to discover many of my favorite landmarks demolished or boarded-up, or so gussied-up they were no longer recognizable. Memories of the past and especially of my childhood hit me with every step I took, strong and powerful feelings I know I want to put into both my writing and my artwork. Packing them away for "later"will, I believe, only make them richer and riper for when I'm ready to use them.
  4. Contentment. Two of my afternoons included quick stops to both South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island, two of the ritiziest malls in existence and where much of my old Cali-life centered around . However, on this visit I had no desire to shop. Instead, I was content with people-watching and admiring the architecture and window displays. It was nice to know that I had everything I wanted in life and couldn't be tempted by more, giving an extra sense of appreciation to when I do have the time to sit down and create art with my favorite supplies.
  5. Focus. Unable to capture anything on paper, I had to look at the world around me on a deeper level and with a different perspective. Many of my reference books on Chinese painting encourage artists to build up their "memory muscles" in order to make their paintings more individual, less rigid, and more personal than simply attempting to photocopy "reality." Without a camera or a pen in my hand, I was forced to "paint in my mind" and really remember: everything!
It was a productive trip, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but there's also no place like home. My own food, my own bed, my own bathroom, and my own studio--ah, and the time, the wonderful time to write and sketch and play again. The best feeling in the world.

Tip of the Day: "Not painting" and "not writing" days can be just as valuable as the days we get to sit with our journals or sketchbooks for hours on end. After all, to quote Natalie Goldberg, "When you are not writing, you are a writer too. It doesn't leave you." The same goes for painting, beading, collaging--whatever fills your passion. The next time you find yourself hampered by time and circumstance, keep in mind that you don't have to come to a complete stand-still. There's always a creative response we can make to every so-called "problem."

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy 2017! Happy Goal-Setting!

Here we are: 2017 and ready to write, draw, paint, bead, dive into the mud and best of all: stay creative every day. It's become something of a tradition of mine to list and share my goals for the New Year here on my blog, and this year I hope to inspire many of you to do the same. Not only does listing my goals help me to achieve them, but my list also helps me to map out how to get there, especially when I use my journal to further discover my "goals within goals."

The main thing I've learned from this annual practice is to keep everything simple and centered on the goals I really want, rather than any tasks or chores I (often mistakenly) think I should, or have to do. 

So with that in mind, my goals for 2017 are to:
  1. Sell, or independently publish before the end of the year, my novel The Abyssal Plain. 2017 is the year!
  2. At the same time, I want to edit and have ready for 2018 publication my novel, Ghazal.
  3. When I'm not writing, I want to complete the illustrations for my poetry collection based on my 2015 trip to Taiwan (publication planned for either this, or next year). I hope to include at least twelve (maybe more) of these paintings depending on the cost of full-color printing.
  4. And when I'm not writing or painting, I plan to continue making pottery and jewelry, but this year there will be a twist: I'm making items themed to go with my existing fiction and non-fiction books. For instance, ceramic pencil cups and holders to fit with my how-to, The Essential Guide for New Writers, and/or necklaces and earrings my main character, Sara Elliott, might wear in Overtaken. It's a fun way to come up with fresh ideas for both beading and marketing, even writing, and I've already bought some new beads and charms to make the first necklace. (Hint: it includes a tiny bejeweled Eiffel Tower.)
  5. Read more non-fiction. A few days ago I finished reading the fourth book in the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series: The Story of the Lost Child. I was so overwhelmed by the power of that particular story and the rest of the books in the series that I felt I needed a break from reading fiction; after all, what could compare? Consequently I found myself at a loss without a bedtime book until I realized I might prefer nonfiction for a change. I went to the library and on random impulse picked out a biography on Mao Zedong--a complete surprise to me. So far I'm finding the book very interesting, encouraging me to expand both my knowledge of world events as well as taking a chance on other books I might usually pass by.
To round out my goal list, I also have a word for the year: Poetry. It came into my head out of the blue, and at first I wondered if it simply related to my Taiwan poetry manuscript and art project. But soon after "hearing it" I realized it meant that I wanted to keep the year poetic, filled with metaphor and symbolism, and a personal dedication to using those metaphors in all I do, from journaling to cooking dinner. It's an interesting concept, and one I'm still exploring. I'll let you know what I find out as the year progresses.

In the meantime, I want to wish you all a very Happy and Exciting New Year--may all your dreams be poetic, strong, and achievable!

Tip of the Day: Goal-setting is a valuable practice no matter what time of year you choose to start, but to my mind there's nothing more positive and practical than listing your goals in January. To add extra sparkle and creativity, rather than just listing your goals on a sheet of scrap or binder paper, how about treating yourself to a new journal, some fancy and colorful pens, and a package of collage items? Create a vision board in your journal to go along with your written goals. And don't forget to share: leave a comment or two here at my blog to let us know what some of your plans are. Have a great year, everyone!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Happy Holidays 2016!

Happy Holidays from Me to You! How will you spend the next few weeks? My plans include:
  • Watching Game of Thrones Season 6. I've been waiting for this for a long time.
  • Reading Book 3 of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
  • Decorating the clay pieces I made last month. I'm still working with an Asian-inspired theme: tiny landscapes, goldfish, and all embellished with beads and coins.
  • Making jewelry: earrings, necklaces, bracelets--using up more of my beads!
  • Being more present and aware with my social media friends: leaving comments on blogs, retweeting their tweets, and really getting to know who everyone is.
  • While I'll be busy online, I'm also taking a small break from all my various writing and art groups until February 2017.
  • Preparing more manuscript submission lists to agents and editors to use in the New Year. (Mindful submission is so much better--and more rewarding--than going willy-nilly through agents and editors A-Z "just because they're there.")
  • Goal planning. One of my favorite year-end tasks! I'll be deciding and finalizing what I really want to do in 2017. (Hint: it's going to include a lot of painting!)
  • And finally, despite the ginormous and very tempting sales in all the stores, I'm NOT buying any new journals, sketchbooks, or any art and writing supplies for myself until I've used 100% of what I already have. And that's a promise!
I hope you've had a happy and miraculous 2016 and that you'll use the holiday season to unwind, relax, and enjoy all the wonderful moments of this beautiful season. I'm so grateful for everything that has come to me this year, and I'm grateful for all of you for sticking with me and reading my blog so faithfully. Thanks for visiting and I'll see you soon. Until then, drink cocoa, stay warm, and remember to stay creative every day!

Tip of the Day: Celebrate the season with a special outing for your writing or art group. In my case I was able to spend a wonderful get-together yesterday with my writer friends at the oh-so-amazing St. James Tea Room here in Albuquerque. (Highly recommended if you're ever visiting New Mexico.) The decor was 100% English Victorian and the December menu was based on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It was all so authentic I thought I'd traveled to the UK--and without any jet lag! Find somewhere special in your own neighborhood to gather, rejoice, and share your 2016 successes and your 2017 goals.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Didn't Win #NaNoWriMo? Don't Worry, Be Happy!

I didn't win NaNoWriMo this year, and guess what? I'm not one bit sorry. In fact, I'm actually celebrating that I took care of myself and my sanity this November. Instead of stressing over word counts, I simply made sure I wrote a little every day, kept sketching every day, and just stayed on track with being creative every day. It was more than good enough--it was fantastic!

There were a number of reasons why this year's 30-day, 50K challenge didn't work for me, but the number one thing going on was a serious case of "monkey mind." Every time I sat down to work on my NaNoWriMo manuscript, I wanted to collage and paint it rather than write it. Or I wanted to find new writing prompts from old magazines. Or . . . or . . .  I just couldn't settle on one way of working on it. At the same time, I still wanted to express what was running through my head: images, colors, even musical themes, but I just needed to play with my subject matter rather than write it. So I followed my heart and:
  • Made 7 new pieces of pottery inspired by my story.
  • Finished the art journal I started earlier this summer with my writer's group by adding collages based on my story.
  • Finished an art journal I started three years ago by writing poetry connected to my story. (Yes, three years is a long time for one journal, I know, I know.)
  • Practiced drawing the horses that were part of my story.
  • Went through a stack of magazines for new pictures and ideas for writing prompts that I can keep using next year for my story.
  • And yes . . . I wrote 19,252 words of my NaNoWriMo story! Not so bad, after all.
Why I'm glad I chose this route:
  • I now have enough greenware to fill my kiln for a bisque firing.
  • Finishing my art journals got rid of my guilt at neglecting them and boosted my energy. And I love having collages to go with my plot, characters, and settings.
  • I've won plenty of NaNoWriMos over the years to know I can do it, but now I also know when to say "no." A very good lesson.
  • And it was still fun to participate, even on a minor scale. I enjoyed following the progress of other writers and encouraging them to continue. I was part of a writing community and it was a good place to be.
It's difficult to balance our real world obligations with our creative desires--sometimes near impossible. If you're anything like me, from the minute I get up in the morning I feel besieged by an entire litany of unrelated tasks: Buy milk; go to Staples; return library books; write Chapter Four. When I threw NaNoWriMo into the mix (write 2900 words today or die), all I wanted to do was go back to bed. That's when I decided to a) go slow, keep writing, but stop chasing the 50K. And, b) make sure that I sat down for at least an hour every day at my art table and just played. It was a good plan. Now I just have another 30K to go, but entirely at my leisure.

Tip of the Day: The key to accomplishing any goal is one step at a time. It doesn't matter how big or small that step is, just give yourself the space to do it. And if you did win NaNoWriMo this year: CONGRATULATIONS!! My hat's off to you. Enjoy your victory!