Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's Your Medium?

What's your medium?  Two winters back I took a ten-week watercolor class because I thought it would be fun to explore a technique that left plenty of room for error and "happy accidents"--perfect for my experimental approach to any artwork.

And I did have fun--I loved dripping brushloads of transparent color over my paper and watching mysterious, unexpected shapes emerge as if by magic.  I loved the light-filled delicacy of the final results, and I especially liked the contrast of brilliant color against the white areas I left unfinished.  Watercolor seemed like a good medium for me, and I was glad I took the class.

At the same time, though, I noticed many of my fellow classmates were not so happy.  Rather than allowing the watercolor pigment to "do its thing" by meandering and flowing across the damp paper, they seemed intent upon forcing the paint to do what it wasn't designed to do, at least not in the hands of beginners:  dark, stormy scenes set against solid (black) rock face; blood red landscapes dominated by impenetrable forests; mountainous night scenes illuminated by moonlight--very little moonlight. 

At first I thought all this angst-y artwork was a product of our having to get up too early on a snowy Saturday morning to then go plunge our hands and brushes into ice-cold water every week.  But as the class progressed and I watched people grow more and more frustrated, I realized these depressive scenes were based on a yearning to express emotion--deep emotion.  And watercolor wasn't the way to go here.  Drama at this level required oils, acrylics, charcoal, gritty things that expressed mood in a way Sap Green and Gamboge Yellow could not.

This got me thinking:  How often do we use the wrong "medium" in our writing?  And why?  This morning I tried a little brainstorming on the subject.  Here's what I came up with:
  • The best medium is the one you love; not the one you're "told to use" or the one you think "will make money."  E.g., "Poetry doesn't sell; think I better write a zombie novel, and fast."
  • One size does not fit all.  Sometimes you need color in your manuscript (poetic description, "show, don't tell"); sometimes you need just black and white (short sentences, factual information, minimal description).
  • Any single medium is not a "catch-all."  You just can't get the same effect from oil pastel that you might from graphite.  A screenplay is not a sonnet; a short story is not an epic.
  • Experimenting with "mixed media" can certainly liven up your work, but you do need to know the properties of each medium before you can use it with confidence and genuine effect.  It's the same with writing:  mixing genres can be the beginner's worst mistake.  But make the effort to learn those genres thoroughly, and surprise, surprise:  they can fit together into a harmonious--and original--whole.  It's just a matter of study and practice.
  • Finding the "right medium" for your story can be as simple as asking yourself:  "What is my core story?  Is it sad, happy, funny, uplifting?  What do I really want to say?"  If your eventual theme is basically a tragedy, you won't want to add a lot of jokes to the story line.  And if you're aiming to be inspirational, painting all your characters as "flawed and evil" might not work so well, either.
Tip of the Day:  When it comes to finding your true creative medium, there's no such thing as "waste."  The process of discovery is all about doing--if one medium isn't working, try another, and another after that.  Even if you have to go through a dozen or more attempts, guess what?  You're one step closer to finding the medium that's just right for you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Starting My Altered Book--The Blank Slate

I've always been intrigued by the idea of an "altered book," probably due to the sheer fear factor:  "Take a published book and chop it up, paint over the pages, and rewrite the whole thing according to your own taste?  What??"  Sacrilege, indeed!  And all the more reason to throw caution to the wind and start making an altered book of my own.

Deciding to alter a book was, for me, a natural progression from art journaling.  Ever since I began writing I've used magazine cut-outs to illustrate my WIP characters, their houses, their wardrobes, and anything else I needed to make my settings and action scenes more real in my mind's eye.  Moving on to dedicated art journaling--including artwork and other collage elements to my journal entries--seemed the obvious next step after keeping extensive notebooks and files for each of my (many!) drafts.  But after several art journals filled with poetry and personal essay, I felt I wanted to tackle something more in line with my fiction interests.  An altered book seemed the perfect choice.

So...for my first attempt, I chose a used book from 1972 of architectural renderings: Six Colleges, Sketches by Allan Gamble.  Reasons for my choice:  the book was "sketchbook" size; not too many pages; lots of blank pages for my own artwork; and the existing black and white, pen and ink sketches were perfect backgrounds for collage and other mixed media.   Most important of all, the "six colleges" (all belonging to the University of Sydney, Australia) have a certain gothic creepiness that appeals to my imagination.

As you can see in the top photo, the cover is truly a "blank slate" of unbleached linen.  At this point I have no idea what I will do with it, but I promise it will be interesting.  The inside of the book is just as challenging, starting with the end papers:

And the actual sketches:

And here's where I am now:

And because I am at heart a novelist, my altered book will have a plot by the time I'm finished, something about "Six Colleges and Four Girls."  Here are my four (unnamed as of yet) main characters:

Aren't they cute?  Over the next few weeks and months I'll be sharing more pictures and story line as I work my way through this--very fun--project.  Now where did I put that glue stick...?

Tip of the Day:  Working on something "just for fun" is just as important as writing or painting "for publication" or "for sale."  The things we love for their own creative sake are the things that guide us toward our true direction.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tell Me Lies

Let's face it:  Everybody lies.  Whether it's telling your mother-in-law her lasagna is the best in the world just as you're wondering how to swallow one more unpalatable bite, or agreeing with Uncle Joe's politics in order to avoid a pointless argument, we all have to glide over "the truth" once in awhile.  And it's exactly the same for your characters--with one big difference:  sometimes your characters have to go way beyond the social niceties.  Sometimes they have to tell whoppers;  big, huge, gigantic lies that could get them into so much trouble I don't even want to think about it.

Far from being the road straight to hell, lies in fiction are an invaluable tool for creating both external and internal conflict.  Untruths are also a great vehicle for "showing, not telling" who your characters really are at heart.  How they lie (blush, stammer, or look you straight in the eye), and the lies they choose to tell (tall tales, or deceitful rumors calculated to cause the most possible harm) can deliver more impact to your plot than pages and pages of truthful--and dull--good behavior.

While many genres routinely depend upon lies to provide the bulk and basis of the story, e.g.:
  • Mystery fiction ("Wasn't me, guv.").
  • Thrillers ("Tell them you are a visiting anthropologist from Bulgaria.").
  • Romance ("I hate him!")
...any type of good fiction can benefit from a good dose of dishonesty.  For instance, with a few well-placed fibs you can:
  • Establish tension:  Will the liar be found out?
  • Create sympathy:  But he did it for his family!  I.e., when a "good" character tells a lie to serve a higher purpose, we'll be desperate for him to get away with it.
  • Story justice.  Just as much as we want our hero's lie to save the day, we also want "bad" characters to get their comeuppance.  It feels good when villains and antagonists are found out as the evil-doers we know they are--and then receive their due punishment.
  • Plot development.  Characters who lie will do anything to keep from being discovered.  Characters in search of the truth will risk all to reach their goal.  Put the two together and your scenes will practically write themselves. 
  • Motivation, mission, and revenge.  Characters who have been lied to won't be happy campers...keeping those wily, no-good, double-crossing liars on the hop.
A good trick to see if your WIP will benefit from throwing in a lie or two is to simply try it out.  On a sheet of paper, take each one of your characters and give them three secrets.  Now give them three possible reasons for needing to keep those secrets.  Finally, invent three lies they could tell to keep those secrets private.  Even if you don't want or need to use any of these secrets and lies in your actual plot line, knowing what they are will go a long way to making your characters real and vivid--even when they're telling the truth.

Tip of the Day:  Make a list of some of your favorite books and movies.  Ask yourself:  What lies do the characters in these stories tell themselves and/or each other?  How did a lie maintain the story tension and keep the plot moving?  How were the lies resolved?  What can you learn from these examples to add more conflict to your own fiction?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Check-In: What's Happening at Dava Books

Big news:  the WIP is finished!  At 451 manuscript pages, it's a huge weight off my shoulders--for the moment, at least.  Starting this weekend, the book will be going into Phase II:  designing my cover and formatting the interior pages for publication.  A lot of people have asked me what program I use for formatting, and the answer is:  Book Design Wizard 2.0.  I love this program and I bought the company's poetry version, too.

The title of the book is Overtaken.  A literary gothic fairy tale for grown-ups, it's about a portrait painter named Sara Elliott who marries a stranger who then disappears.  In her search to find her husband, Sara learns more about herself than she ever could have imagined.  And it was lots of fun to write.

So now that the WIP is finished and seems more like "whipped cream" than "whip that book into shape or else," I'm feeling a little bit like a kid just let out of school.  Some of the projects I can now attend to guilt-free are:

  • Play with my new camera.  Yes, I bought a camera at long last--and I can't leave it alone.  It's pink.  Here's my first picture:

  • Work on my book trailer for Overtaken.  This time I hope to have my trailer released before the book.
  • Design my marketing cards.  I love making--and sending--postcards based on my book cover designs.  I've always thought postcards are more cost effective than bookmarks because you can do so much more with them.  And they hold your place in a book just fine.
  • Start blogging twice a week.  I've wanted to do this for awhile, and now that I have my camera I have some new ideas on new directions for my blog.   While I will still be sharing writing tips and experiences, I'll also be taking you into my art studio.  (Hint:  I'll be working on my first "altered book."  Hope you'll be as intrigued as I am by this new adventure.)
So that's what's happening here at Dava Books.  Stay tuned for more!  And as always, thanks so much for reading and leaving your kind comments. 

Tip of the Day:  Where are you right now in your writing or creative journey?  Freewrite and take stock of what you've accomplished, where you want to go, and how you plan to get there.  What new tools, classes, or supplies do you need to expand your horizons?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Manuscript Revision--Play Nice

When it comes to revising your manuscript, you want to be ruthless--to your pages, that is.  Being mean to yourself during the revision process won't make your writing any better or worse than it already is--I know because I've tried it too many times!

Right now I'm on the very last revision pages of my current WIP before typesetting begins next week.  There are days when it's felt like a never-ending chore--one that's taken much longer than I ever could have predicted.  Then again, there have been wonderful days when I want to jump up and down, shouting, "I love being a writer!"  Either way, here are some of the most important things I've learned over these last few months:

1.  Whatever else happens, do your best to keep to a schedule for revision, preferably choosing blocks of time when you're at your highest energy levels.

2.  It's a good idea to print out your pages for revision and then use a 3-step plan:  a) read through without a pen, but place small post-its where you think you need to make a change;  b) go through the manuscript again, and this time pencil in your changes; c) make your changes. 

3.  Take time off between the stages.  At least 24-48 hours is good for a short piece; a week or two can be better for a novel or book-length manuscript.

4.  Don't feel you have to over-reach to be a "disciplined writer."  Whether you are just reading through your manuscript, or you are in the final proofreading stage, divide your manuscript into workable blocks of pages.  When choosing the amount of pages to work on per revision session, be easy on yourself.  You'll be more inclined to work consistently on 3-10 page blocks, rather than those of 20-30.

5.  Create and use a style sheet right from the start:  e.g., characters' names and ages, foreign words or terms that can have multiple spellings, words that need capitalization and those that don't. 

6.  Read your work aloud whenever you can. 

7.  Acknowledge that revision isn't a "get it over and done with" part of your writing life.  It's about trying to do your absolute best.  If a certain page takes several days to "get it right," then that's how long it's going to take and your schedule will just have to change.  At the same time, you'll often find that some revision sessions speed by because there's not much, if anything, to change.  And just because the work is "easy" on that particular day, resist the urge to grab more pages.  Instead, take advantage of the extra time for some rest and relaxation.

8.  If you have to miss a day or two of editing, don't try to make up for lost time with a marathon.  It's too easy to gloss over important (and suspect) passages, declaring them "okay" in an attempt to cram a week's worth of work into an afternoon.  Marathons can also create burn-out, making you too tired or bored to continue with the next day's revision schedule.

9.  Reward yourself at the end of each session.  Even if it's something as simple as a cup of coffee, or allowing yourself some reading time, take it.

10.  If you feel stuck and can't find a solution to a manuscript problem--allow yourself a small break.  Go for a walk, take a nap, watch a movie.

11.  Another way to handle what feels like an insurmountable problem is to play with some freewriting or artwork.  Try this:  In your journal write the words, "What I really want to say in this scene (passage, chapter, piece of dialogue) is...  Then just talk it through.  You'll be amazed at how clear the solution will be.  Collage or doodling can help too.  Playing with some colored pencils or crayons, magazine cut-outs, or personal photos can bring you closer to the mood, theme, or emotion you're trying to evoke through your writing.

12.  Always have a journal or notepad ready to collect new ideas.  Rather than resist the urge to add a new idea because "it doesn't fit," at least give yourself the chance to experiment.  By keeping a new scene or character separate from your actual manuscript, but also ready for inclusion, you can decide whether it fits or not later on.

Tip of the Day:  We all have our own "comfort zones" for knowing exactly what is too much (or too little) writing or revision to achieve in one day.  Understanding your working style and needs before you start a project will keep your output consistent and your deadlines stress-free.