Monday, November 16, 2020

My 12 Top Reasons for Loving NaNoWriMo (Even if I Can't Join in This Year)

Here we are: halfway through National Novel Writing Month, the greatest novel writing challenge on earth; 50,000 words in thirty days. If I wasn't so absorbed with polishing my final draft of Ghazal, I'd be right in the thick of things, too, armed with my favorite fountain pen and a brand new journal.

Sitting out this year, however, doesn't mean I'm ignoring the website, one of the best resources writers have for discovering fresh advice, solid encouragement, and a wide array of writing tools. And for anyone who's sitting on the fence wondering it they should have signed up, well, go for it! Even if there are only two weeks left, you can still have more fun than a barrel of monkeys because:

  1. You can write for yourself. Completely, indulgently, luxuriously, unashamedly. Who cares if your manuscript gets published, or rejected, or even liked by someone else? Just write and use the month to please yourself and no one else.
  2. It's a unique opportunity to experiment. Always wanted to write a murder mystery? A novel in verse? A dystopian literary romance? Here's your chance. Go for it.
  3. When you decide to join the NaNoWriMo community you join as a writer, not a "wannabe," a word I've never really liked much, but one that many new writers wrongly apply to themselves. If you're putting words on paper, you're a writer. NaNoWriMo gives you your credentials.
  4. You can write the most overblown, purple-tinged, excessively detailed info drops and descriptions without a twinge of discomfort. The wordier the better. Why? Well, to start with you need the words, as many as possible, in order to achieve your daily word count. More importantly however, the longer and crazier you can make your sentences and paragraphs, the more certain you are to hit pay dirt when you edit. Writing in minute detail the contents of your main character's closet, for instance, will give you more information than you would ever dream of including in a final, edited draft, but it may give you the hidden gun or stolen armadillo shell that will propel your plot, conflict, and motivation into a bestseller.
  5. NaNoWriMo is an opportunity to discover how much free time you really do have to write a novel. If you can find the time to write during November, you can find the time to write all year long. Small sacrifices such as reducing the time you spend on social media sites or binge watching television programs add up to big gains. Thirty minutes here, ten there, it's all waiting for you to seize and use for writing time.
  6. 2020 may take the cake for being one of the most challenging years of our lives, but that doesn't mean we get a free pass to wallow and stare out the window. Taking part in NaNoWrimo 2020 may be one of the most positive and productive things you've been able to do all year. No one can ever lock you down or restrict your creativity.
  7. Breaking away from the need to be entertained during these difficult times is good for your brain and self-esteem. Taking charge and creating your own entertainment rather than being a passive viewer is good for your overall emotional, physical, and mental health. Focusing on your creativity rather than the many things you may fear or feel you can't do is one of the best "vitamin supplements" on the market.
  8. NaNoWriMo is a community. 2020 participants may not be able to gather in the all-day, late-night socializing and group write-ins of past years, but they can certainly share and converse with each other through a variety of forums, not the least being the actual NaNoWriMo site itself. Make new friends!
  9. When you are free to experiment without expectations you have permission to express and discover what you don't like about writing or what you don't like to write. For decades you may have been dreaming about writing a medieval romance set in France, but after two weeks in you may find you detest "happily ever after" and your real passion is hard-boiled true crime. Great! Toss France out the window and go for murder on the high seas with a dash of larceny for luck, the story that truly feeds your soul.
  10. On the other hand, though, if medieval France turns out to seriously be your thing, NaNoWriMo lets you go full immersion. Spending quality time on research, language studies, and even travel plans for the future to add realistic details to your story can set the stage for a productive and engaging 2021.
  11. Whether you write 100,000 words or five pages during the month of November, you will have something to show at the end of the day. Something that with a little dedication and discipline can be turned into a real, live manuscript.
  12. And best of all, even if you started out on the NaNoWriMo path with the intention to just play, guess what? You've got the makings of a book! Which is how many of the best published books you've ever read started out, a little idea that made history.

Tip of the Day: If for some reason you're like me and can't participate in NaNoWriMo this year, you can always plan ahead for next year. Start a file folder with ideas, writing prompts, and magazine cut-outs so that you'll be raring to go for 2021!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Having Fun at Domestika!

Work in progress: Watercolor sketch of Albuquerque's Sawmill Market

Hi Everyone! Today I'm excited to share a website for an online learning course that has brightened my locked-down life considerably:

Always looking to improve my urban sketching style and skills, several months ago I was browsing through in search of a good drawing video. The one I eventually found started (as most Youtube videos do) with an ad, which I first thought of skipping, but then--crazy as it sounds--it completely hooked me in. Maybe it was the music, the background color scheme, I don't know what it was that caught my attention, but after a few seconds I realized the ad was for an online class taught by an artist whose work I have long admired: Alex Hillkurtz. The class he was offering was on architectural sketching in ink and watercolor, just what I was looking for, and he was in PARIS! Oh, wow! No two ways about it, I had to sign up on the spot.

Although the course didn't actually include a trip to Paris, everything else turned out better than I had hoped. I enjoyed the progression of lessons, from sharing in the members' forums to learning about creating thumbnail sketches and framing our finished work. There were also many added bonus features such as photo references to download and suggestions for books to read during, or after completing the class. Altogether it was just the prescription I needed to get me through these dreary months of isolation and limited activity.

Since finishing the class with Alex, I have signed up for two more with other artists: one on experimental watercolor technique and another on naturalist bird drawing. Neither was an easy choice. There are so many courses to choose from I could barely make up my mind and kept wavering between "Sumi-ink design looks like so much fun!" and "Yes, I really do need to take that one on picture book narrative." In the end I decided to go with the basics first and then tackle sumi, picture book layout, and character creation later.

Most impressive to me about are what I consider the very low cost and the quality of instruction. Perhaps best of all is that once a class is purchased, it's yours and you can go back to watch and review each lesson as many times as you need. (For me it's the one on perspective which despite the clear and precise guidelines will always elude me.)

Thumbnail sketch of the Sawmill Market.

First practice sketch on "good" paper.

More practice sketching. This time the Wells Fargo building . . .

The only, and very small, negative about the site is that with the exception of Alex Hillkurtz, the other instructors I've enrolled with present their classes in Spanish. This has been both a good and bad thing--the bad is that I have to turn the sound off and only read the subtitles the first time I watch the videos. For me personally, it's a tad confusing to try to watch, listen, and read at the same time. However, once I get the gist of the lesson, I then turn the subtitles off and listen to the Spanish version. I'm amazed at how many words and phrases I can recognize as I go along: Spanish lessons while I learn to paint. Now if I could just take my travel journal to Spain everything would be totally perfect!

Tip of the Day: Reaching the end of your tether? Learn something new and re-energize yourself in preparation for a creative and happy 2021. If you're a writer, try painting; artists, go for some writing. Good luck and remember, never give up! We will get through this; one sketch, one story at a time.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Creativity Kit To Go

My Creativity Kit to Go . . . somewhere . . . anywhere . . .

Been anywhere exciting lately? No? Me either. So far this past week, the most thrilling outings I've had--other than scurrying back and forth between my apartment and the laundry room--have included: three one-hour walks through my neighborhood; two visits to the grocery store; and five round-trip car journeys to work. 

Over the weekend I decided that this wasn't a very inspiring, or productive, way to use my out-of-the-house time. Prior to isolation, I used to love carrying my sketchbook or writer's notebook with me absolutely everywhere: to the museum, the mall, the park, the community center, and yes, even to work (especially to work!). But lately when I've gone out, I simply walk or shop as quickly as I can before rushing back home to write or draw within the confines of my balcony. Without any nice air-conditioned cafes or comfortable seating areas (or the bathrooms to go with them) I've been reluctant to stand outside on the sidewalk to sketch under the scorching sun. It's also been pretty lonely wandering the deserted city streets by myself while the masked strangers I do pass cross the road the minute they see me. I miss my old life, I really do, but recently I've realized that I can't just wallow forever; hence my "creativity kit to go."

The purpose of the kit is to have some art and writing supplies always at the ready, whether it's to scribble in the park sitting on a blanket with a homemade ice coffee, or driving to an empty parking lot to write a quick short story in my car.

I'm still in the process of tweaking things, but for now my kit contains:
  • A 20-color set of my favorite Akashiya Sai watercolor brush pens. Twenty pens might sound like a lot, but they're slim and portable and having a full range of color to play with is just plain fun.
  • Two water brushes (for spreading and diluting the color from the pens): 1 large flat, 1 large round.
  • A mechanical pencil with a packet of extra leads. No sharpening required!
  • One kneaded eraser.
  • One black ink roller ball pen.
  • One black ink fountain pen with two extra ink cartridges. 
  • Two small sketchbooks: one for pencil and ink, one for watercolor.
  • One damp microfiber cloth in a plastic bag.
  • Two folded paper towels.
  • One 6-inch ruler (great for sketching buildings and practicing perspective).
  • A composition book for writing down ideas, freewriting, poetry, or simply journaling.
  • A literary magazine filled with stories, poems, and evocative photography. When taken out of context, the individual lines, titles, and pictures make for excellent writing and art prompts. And if you're feeling tired or out of sorts, hey, just read and renew your spirit for a little while.
  • Lastly, a pencil pouch to hold all the pens, pencils, brushes and erasers, with everything then placed in a small tote bag along with the larger items.
The best part of having my kit packed and at hand is that I can make the decision to go outside and draw and write without a ton of preparation. It also serves to remind me that I am still a writer, still an artist, still a creative being. I may be isolated, but I'm certainly not incapable of making the best of things. So who's with me? I'd like to invite you to make a kit of your own and to try and use it at least once a day, even if it's just to go into your own backyard. Let's go!

Tip of the Day: Writers and artists are used to working alone, but working in our current state of enforced isolation, complete with face masks, takes solitude to an entirely new level. It can be difficult to inspire yourself day after day, but a surefire way to keep the ideas coming is to try adding a prompt, written or visual, to each page of your sketch- or notebook.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

More Things to Do at Home: Start a Book Journal

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I've been reading so many excellent books over the past few weeks: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell; When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Lying Game by Ruth Ware. The only problem is, thanks to isolation and social distancing, I don't have anyone to talk to about these great reads!

I'm sure that like many others in my predicament, one of the things I'm truly missing right now are book clubs. Of course there must be plenty of clubs online and chances to share opinions on review and similar sites, but in-person book discussions (and yes, all those passionate, intense "my-favorite-book-is-better-than-your favorite-book" arguments!) will still always be the best for me. However, there's still one good trick up every reader's (and writer's) sleeve: keeping a book journal, and if you haven't already started one, now is the perfect time to begin.

A book journal can be tailored to any format that suits you best, but I personally like to divide mine into sections and I prefer using lined paper for the simple reason that this is one type of journal that requires order over creativity. My favorite notebooks to use as book journals are those ruled composition books you can find anywhere from the grocery to the office supply store. They're cheap and I can collage and decorate the covers to my heart's content. But after I've put away the glue sticks and scissors it's all business and my next task is to create my various sections with things such as:
  • What's on my TBR pile? (Or Kindle line-up if you've switched to reading on a device.) Listing what to read next, and when, can help you from feeling overwhelmed from buying or owning too many unread books.
  • Answering the questions sometimes printed at the back of a book in the form of a "reader's guide." When I was able to attend in-person book clubs, I was often assigned the task of finding these guides on publisher's websites if they weren't included in the actual book.
  • Listing and writing about my favorite books: books from my childhood; books that motivated or inspired me; how-to books; books that marked significant moments or passages in my life.
  • Favorite authors and notes about their lives together with places I might like to travel to in order to visit their homes, museums, or archives.
  • Creating a reading wish-list for both myself and lists of books to give to friends or family as gifts.
  • Book club selections with records of what we've read, how the group responded to the book, and lists of books for future meetings.
  • Lists of books I've given away in case I want to reference them again one day, either by purchasing them or borrowing them from a library.
  • Books I didn't like, and why! It's fun to vent about a book you truly dislike, but it's also very revealing to discover the real reasons for liking one book over another. Note: I never think it's a good or wise decision to write one-star or very negative book reviews for publication on sites such as or Goodreads. But in the privacy of your journal you might want to express why a book bothered you so much. It's also a good way to discover more about your own writing: what genres appeal to you? What styles, voices, and types of characters are the ones you can--and want--to keep learning from? What mistakes do you want to avoid
  • Another tip for writers is to have a section in your journal that can be used for classifying and categorizing "comparison titles," books that you can offer to agents or editors as the ones that influenced you, or that your own book is similar to.
  •  Fan fiction. How would you continue the story or plot line if you could? Who were your favorite characters and what more would you like to discover about their lives? Use your imagination and write it down! I especially love doing this when the conclusion to a book is "open ended" and I'm left hanging: do the characters stay friends or become enemies? Are they able to create happier lives? Escape a war zone? Meet new romantic partners or give up on relationships altogether? Enquiring minds want to know!

Whichever way you want to go with your book journal always remember to write for yourself and never worry about what anyone else thinks about your taste in reading material. Go deep and ask yourself what you honestly loved, hated, or wished was different about the story or the way it was presented

Tip of the Day: It's lonely out there, but books can still be a great way to connect with friends. As a special treat for someone you haven't seen for awhile, how about making a book journal as a gift? Section off pages with questions and areas for them to fill in and complete. Be sure to include a list of some of your favorite titles and authors to recommend for future reading.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Traveling Light and Going Goal-Free

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Here we are: June already, and the time of year I usually do a goals check-in, asking myself how it's all going, what's working, what isn't . . . Oh, boy.  

What can I say? As much as I'd love to tell you that my cumulative efforts toward goal-completion are moving with rocket speed, the truth is, they are not. In fact, a few weeks ago I actually got rid of my goals journal, and I feel a lot better for it.

As we are all probably sick of hearing (and knowing), 2020 hasn't been much of a joy ride. So many plans have had to be changed, put aside, or dropped altogether. For me personally this has involved abandoning plans to take new art and language classes, as well as giving up on even thinking about overseas travel. What I can do, however is keep working, as in:
  • Keep writing, which means continuing with my WIP.
  • Keep submitting my work for publication.
  • Keep learning and practicing to improve my drawing and painting skills.
  • Keep beading and building inventory for an eventual business, one that was supposed to start this summer, but now is, well, getting ready for NEXT summer!
My "modified goals" are simple, doable, and fit into my new 2020 routines and schedules. To make things even more streamlined, I've been doing some packing, putting away art supplies I'm not using at this exact moment; placing various unfinished works-in-progress into plastic storage containers; discarding old writing exercises that I know for sure I don't want to edit or publish, ever. 

I feel a lot lighter and a lot happier. With only a small amount of projects on my plate I feel as if I'm on a kind of creative vacation, the kind that only requires a small overnight bag and plenty of sunshine and rest.

Traveling light suits me and has always been my preferred way to see the world, whether it's a quick trip to Santa Fe, or a longer journey to Taiwan. Not only is a small suitcase easier to carry, but I never have to pay for any unwanted baggage fees. Most importantly, a small case makes me focus: What do I really need to have with me every day? What items will only create clutter, take up too much room, and will probably never be used anyway?

I weighed these same types of concerns to evaluate what it was I truly wanted to have with me for the rest of the year, if not beyond. As I was packing up my old first drafts and unused sketchbooks, it got me thinking about what else I could let go of, things that might be causing more trouble than joy in my life. You might recognize some of these in your own life and feel the need to let go of them too: 
  • Emotions revolving around creative work. Something I've learned about creativity is that it's never going to be free of anxiety and stress. Stress that something isn't "right." Stress that a project or manuscript will never be "good enough." Heck, I can even stress over finding a typo in an old blog post! So often our expectations are light years beyond what is required to achieve or complete any given project. The sooner you can let go of worry and just create without expectation, the better your work will naturally become. Ironic, isn't it?
  • Over-achieving. For me this means the need to work on too many projects at once. I fell into this bad habit when I read--and believed--a very stupid book that claimed multi-tasking was what highly-motivated professional writers and artists did: spin plates while walking on high wires and jumping through hoops with paintbrushes in both hands and a manuscript in their teeth. All day long! After hard experience and a lot of burn-out, I now know: tackling one project from start to finish is a far more productive, and satisfying, way to work. It's also a whole lot less to carry around in my brain.
  • TBR pile. I love to read, more than anything else on earth! But sometimes I can have such a huge pile of books to get through it feels like I'm in some never-ending high school English class: read those books, write those reports! Better to have just one book that I really want to read than a stack of homework assignments.
  • Too big of a to-do list. Another of my really bad habits: sitting down to write a daily to-do list that should only include: "buy milk, check post office box, pick up dry cleaning." Okay--that makes sense, one round trip should do it all. But then I start adding things like: Finish novel (which requires at least another six months). Practice drawing faces (well, maybe I have time for that over the weekend). Gesture drawings--twenty of them (which would take probably three hours). And it doesn't end there. Usually I need to get a second piece of paper to write down everything I want to do for the rest of my life. And it's all so counter-productive! Believing that I can accomplish all of this while going to my day job and buying the milk is a good guarantee that I end up wanting to do nothing but read one of those books from my TBR pile. From now on, my to-do list is going to be the size of a post-it or I won't even bother writing it.
  • Too many ideas. Although I've done a good job of packing up my various projects in order to concentrate on finishing one manuscript in the form of my current novel, I still keep getting IDEAS. I don't want to ignore them completely and I don't want to lose them, but really, there are days I wish they'd go visit someone else. In order to semi-solve the situation, I've taken to simply writing them down and putting them away in a folder. I want to add "never to be seen again" but who knows, there might come a day when I'll be glad of them. The one thing I'm certain of, though, is I'm not going to a) dwell on them, b) drop everything else I'm doing to pursue them, and I'm especially not going to c) purchase anything they might cry out for such as new paint sets or special supplies. No, no, no!
  • Too many online obligations and interactions. This is a difficult one, I know. But there's been something special about having this extra alone time to befriend myself, getting to know what I really want from life, and what types of goals will suit me best when I do come out of isolation. None of us need a thousand "likes" to know our work has value, just a strong inner voice reminding us to show up and do whatever we can at any given time.
To me traveling light means the ability to travel well and to travel easily. It means going where your heart calls you, not where the guidebook says you must. It means being able to stop and smell the roses right in front of you rather than  rushing off to find and paint acres of magic orchids just because it sounds so grand and accomplished. For now simplicity is truly the key. Happy Trails!
Tip of the Day: What's weighing you down right now? There's no reason to carry anything other than what you love, but even those things might need to be re-examined in order to navigate our current world with greater ease and a lighter step. Take some time to consider what to keep, what to get rid of, and what you might want for later but don't want to discard completely. Pack it up and save it for next year!