Thursday, November 30, 2017

Baby Steps

Here it is the last day of November and I'm finally finding a chance to write a blog post for the month. It's been hectic around here to say the least, but I'm doing my best to stay focused using one of my old stand-bys: baby steps

"Baby steps" are one of those things that tend to come up a lot in self-help books: Want to be more productive? Take baby steps. Want to give up a bad habit? Take baby steps! But what does taking baby steps really mean? And when do you get to graduate to long-distance running?

For a long time I confused baby steps with doing the easy parts first: "I'll just buy a new journal," or, "I'll learn to draw leaves before I try a full landscape." Not that there's anything wrong with this approach, but recently I've learned that baby steps are much bigger, and far more important, than they first appear. They're so important that I don't know what I'd do without them, especially with the way they help me stay organized, a key ingredient to goal accomplishment. And while they may not be as exciting as waltzing through the streets of Vienna or ice skating down a frozen canal, they sure are reliable. Some of my favorite steps include:

Baby Steps for Writers:
  • Buy supplies in advance (yes, do buy those journals!). Notebooks, pens, Post-it notes, paper--buy in bulk whenever possible.
  • Got some downtime? Make lists of potential agents, editors, and publishers.
  • Write and work on your query letters and synopses anytime you can't get to your actual manuscript. Update as you edit and/or make changes to your story line.
  • Create a work-in-progress binder with character bios, notes on setting, and any research material you need. Include a section for prompts and images cut from magazines or similar. Use for freewriting and brainstorming scenes and plot lines.
  • Be prepared! Set up submission files of 5-, 10-, 20-, and 50-page manuscript excerpts in advance of querying. Individual agents have different requirements. You'll save time by having each type of submission ready to go.
  • Make notes of what  you will write during your next available writing session: e.g., Chapter Three; a description of your main character's neighborhood; a biography of your story villain.
  • Find thirty minutes somewhere in your day to freewrite, whether it's to work on your manuscript, your journal, or a "just for fun" piece.
  • Edit and revise a limited amount of pages a day, say, three to five. Go for three passes: one to check on consistency in names/dates/settings/back story/character goals and motivations; another to ensure your story makes sense and builds to a satisfying conclusion; and a third to weed out typos and awkward grammar.
Baby Steps for Artists:
  • Create an art table or space that invites you to spend time there.
  • Get to know your supplies. Learn what they can and can't do. Experiment with pencils, brushes, and various papers. Forget about "making art," just scribble!
  • Keep your supplies to a minimum so you can get to work faster. Settle on one type of medium, one type of paper or other support per project.
  • Limit your subject matter for a while  to a single theme: still life, autumn landscapes, a trip abroad until you've exhausted all the possibilities and are ready to move on.
  • Work from one how-to book from start to finish.
  • Sketch for 15 minutes--anywhere, any time of day. 
  • Watch a how-to video once a day or week.
  • Lay out your supplies and references the night before you start to work. Make a note of what you want to accomplish the following day.
Baby Steps for Bloggers:
  • Brainstorm a list of topics.
  • Create an editorial calendar.
  • Prepare a file of photos or artwork to go with your posts.
  • Write your drafts by hand at a set time and day.
  • Set aside specific days and times to visit and comment on other people's blogs.
  • Print out your blog posts and save into a binder for future reference.
  • Keep a blogging journal: ideas, drafts, and reminders of why you are blogging in the first place.
Baby Steps for Crafters:
  • Settle on one discipline for a set period of time, e.g. ceramics for the winter months; knitting a sweater from start to finish.
  • Join a class or independent group of like-minded individuals.
  • As with art, limit your supplies to what you really need. Don't get tangled up in extra yarn you won't use for a year or two.
  • Set aside a dedicated day or time to work only on your current project.
  • Keep a journal with photos to remind you of what you made, what you need to purchase, ideas for future projects, and a list of what you'd like to achieve later on: e.g., ten pairs of earrings, a set of garden tiles, three skirts, an afghan for a holiday gift.

Once you start working with baby steps, no matter how many times you fall down or bump into the furniture, I can promise you won't want to give up. Baby steps remind us to stay focused, stay determined, and stay playful, and before you know it--you've run, and won, a marathon.

Tip of the Day: The first and foremost baby step you can take today begins with a list. Starting now, make a list of 12 steps you can use to keep writing and creating during the holidays. If you discover you absolutely can't create in the midst festive chaos, then make a list of actions you can take starting January 1, 2018. For further inspiration, read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, one of the best books on the subject I know!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Short Stories or Novels?

Short stories or novels? Which are best to write? Which are best and/or easiest for beginning writers? I've thought about these questions ever since I took my first writing class way back in Mission Viejo, California. As a new writer, I was drawn to the immediacy (and abbreviated length) of short stories, but our class instructor had different ideas. She believed one-hundred-percent that new fiction writers should begin their careers with novels. Her advice worked well for me--I wrote two novels right off the bat and learned so much about writing I then went on to teach writing classes of my own.

Since then I've experimented with many kinds of writing: screenplays, poetry, nonfiction, and even short stories which I rarely, if ever, thought about submitting for publication. To me short stories were exercises in freewriting, practice pieces for fun and entertainment. However, that all changed this past July when I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and decided to write a sequence of short stories in lieu of a novel. It was time well spent, allowing me to both create a body of work while also discovering some important reasons why some people (including me) might like to consider short story writing as a serious publishing path. For instance:
  • Regardless of your initial enthusiasm for writing a novel, there eventually comes a day when the writing feels like more of a chore than a joy. One of the most difficult challenges for any writer is to muster the courage, strength, and willpower to stick with a book-length manuscript. Short stories are an excellent pick-me-up to provide some diversion and a fresh approach during the dark nights of novel-writing.
  • Writing a novel is a long-term relationship. Short stories are more like speed dating: Meet, write, move on! At best you might meet the story of a lifetime. And if you don't, well, it's all good life-experience.
  • With short stories, your time frame and cast of characters is much smaller than that of a novel, making everything much easier to keep track of. If your story starts out with a 36-year-old archaeologist working on a Saturday morning, chances are even if she quits her job she'll still be the same age when your story ends in the afternoon.
  • How often have you heard not to start your novel with too much information or back story? But with a short story, the back story IS the story! Tip: That juicy stuff you have to leave out of your novel? Turn it into short stories, the more the merrier.
  • For creative types who love starting projects but have trouble with completion, writing a short story a day or a week provides an endless wealth of new beginnings. Every writing session allows for a fresh start, a clean slate, and a chance to explore and experiment with voice, style, and subject matter.
  • Best of all, finishing a short story provides a wonderful sense of achievement and accomplishment. You did it!
  • And if by some terrible chance you don't like what you're writing or have written: End it. Toss it. Write the next one!
  • You can write short fiction on the go. Wherever you are: at work, on vacation, waiting in the car or for an appointment, you can write and finish a short story. And they're easier than ever to submit and publish thanks to the Internet.
November's NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is just around the corner. If you're thinking of signing up, here's a suggestion: How about bending the rules a bit and rather than going for the traditional novel, set a goal of writing 30 (one a day) short stories? Ray Bradbury famously said that writing a story a week for a year would give you 52, and out of 52 at least one of them had to be good. Same out of 30, I'd say!

Tip of the Day: In many ways short stories are the equivalent of poetry: succinct, metaphoric, and intended to leave a powerful impression. The best way to understand what goes into them is to read as many as you can. Your local library will have numerous anthologies categorized by individual author as well as genre. I've always been a big fan of the Ellen Datlow editions of horror stories--just right for Halloween!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

October Retreat, Refocus, Recharge

Warmest October wishes, all. It's a beautiful time of year and yet I'm feeling kind of down right now. There's been so much bad news lately: hurricanes, flooding, now a sickening tragedy in Las Vegas, a city I've never visited, yet one that holds such a legendary place in American culture and imagination. These last few weeks it's all I can do to keep drawing, writing, or even smile.

Yesterday during lunch I was at such a low point all I could think of was turning to my journal and making a list of ways to get out of the slump. It was a fairly productive session, and one I thought I would share with you. I hope I don't come across as some kind of Pollyanna, always on the lookout for kittens and rainbows in the midst of world chaos. Yet somehow as artists, writers, and crafters we have to maneuver our way through, seeking the good wherever it may be. Some of those ways could include:
  1. Start a new art journal of happy pictures, inspirational quotes, random acts of kindness, and motivational activities. Keep it by your bedside to review every night.
  2. Turn off the news. If you really need to know "what's happening" because you don't want to feel too isolated, limit viewership or airtime to around 15 minutes a day to catch the headlines. In reality, that's all you need. After that the stories are repeated without end and most of the "news" is simply anchors and pundits speculating and promoting their own opinions. None of it carries any genuine value.
  3. Take a break from social media, and when you return, limit your participation and go for the positive, e.g., congratulating an author on a book sale, encouraging a new artist worried about finding her style, liking a magnificent photograph. Stick to spreading helpful information or making someone laugh.
  4. Make a gratitude list--go for 100, or more! If you can read this post, your life is filled with blessings.
  5. Avoid complaining. Ironically, voicing that I don't like complaints is of course a complaint! Oops. But I'll say this and then move on: What does complaining actually achieve (especially when it comes to world and political events) other than to make yourself and everyone else miserable? One weird but very effective way to be aware of any tendency to (over) complain is to put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you're tempted to vent.
  6. Paint abstract watercolors. If you've never considered yourself an artist and don't own any supplies, you can purchase a nice little set of Prang or Crayola watercolors, a pad of watercolor paper, and a packet of brushes for under $15, probably less depending on where you shop. But there's nothing more soothing and meditative than putting on some music and swirling color around to express your mood. Whether your feelings are joyful or sad, you'll be surprised at the beauty you can create by letting go for awhile, and how easily you can shift from a negative to a hopeful state.
  7. Take a rest from fiction, particularly at bedtime (and I LOVE fiction before I go to sleep) and replace it with inspirational literature. I realized I had to do this when I was reading a string of very exciting but also very graphic mysteries that a) kept me awake, and b) were giving me nightmares. It's bad enough to feel tense and anxious during the day, but to go through the same discomfort while sleeping is intolerable. 
  8. Wear some color. For the last few weeks I've been wearing a lot of black. Today I put on a pink shirt. I feel lighter. I feel like smiling. If your work environment prefers you to wear dark colors, you can always add a bright scarf, tie, or necklace.
  9. Go outside as much as possible. Today during my break I stepped outside and appreciated the clouds, the touch of rain in the air, the little weeds growing in the parking lot. It wasn't the best view in the world, but it was lovely in its own urban way. And it felt good.
  10. Ritual. I've often mentioned how important it is to my creative schedule to maintain tiny rituals: jasmine tea before I write, burning incense, using a favorite pen or journal. Lately I've come to welcome these activities more than ever, enjoying the peaceful and secure feelings they create. Over the next few weeks, experiment with some new or perhaps neglected rituals to ease the day.
  11. Good and simple food. Autumn is the start of soup weather and the perfect season for roasted vegetables, casseroles, and the slow-cooker. I like to add lots of chili, ginger, and garlic whenever possible; great for the immune system and the aroma alone can light up the darkest night. 
  12. Give your current creative project 110%. Rather than longing for it to be finished, or thinking, "What's the use?" now is the time to work with more dedication than ever. Someone, somewhere, needs what you're writing, painting, sewing, or beading. Stay focused. Stay generous. The work will carry you through.
So let's get busy and write those stories, paint those pictures. And like the song says: 
"Don't worry, be happy."

Tip of the Day: Before I started teaching creative writing, I was first a volunteer in the literacy programs at my local library. I always loved the "Each one, teach one" motto included in all the materials I used. Since then I've tried to put that same idea into my daily life, including this blog. It's good to volunteer and it's good to share, but keep in mind these are only suggestions. Take what you need, discard what doesn't work for you, and always know that these posts are just a small attempt to inspire your own creativity. Thank you for stopping  by!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

September Vision Quest

Happy September, all! I love this time of year: the first autumn leaves and breezes, back-to-school supplies at bargain prices, renewed goals and the determination to follow through. After a wonderful summer, I'm ready to put on a sweater and dig deep into the creative goldmine. In other words, I'm ready to write, draw, and make stuff.

Thanks to the Labor Day holiday weekend I had a chance to completely unwind and prepare for this coming season of harvest. To get the ball rolling I turned off my computer, grabbed my journal, and planted myself in my own backyard to embark on the equivalent of an artistic vision quest. My intention was to re-set my inner compass and find the most natural, most productive path to follow until the end of the year. It worked like a charm; here are some of my discoveries:
  • I am a sketchbook artist. Sketchbooks and journals are my true north. Having extra on hand for future projects is not hoarding, LOL!
  • I love color above all else: deep rich, evocative, transparent color. A good meditation practice this fall could be to paint watercolor washes while listening to music, the dreamier the better.
  • The drawings and paintings I consider my most successful all contain what I can only call a sacred loneliness, an emptiness that is completely full, patient, and wonderfully open to Being. It's a paradox, perhaps even a koan of sorts, but it's a path I'll never tire of exploring. So keep going!
  • My best work also contains a strong sense of story: what's behind that tree? Where are those people going? What is this place? Consequently it makes sense to paint my picture book illustrations first and write later--the pictures, just like any good writing prompts, will inspire the text.
  • Randomness is EVERYTHING, again for both my art and my writing. Happy accidents, impossible-to-hide bloopers, unexpected sources of inspiration or research, an unusual color mix I'll never be able to repeat, a character who suddenly announces he or she spent time in prison and now wants to move to Fiji (hey, that wasn't in the first draft!). Random occurrence, prompts, and choices are exciting, something to actively seek. More importantly, they're inevitable--might as well go with the flow!
  • I received a totem animal--yes! A little black cat, new to the neighborhood, has started napping on the path to my front door. I've yet to explore all the symbolism, but I'm sure this one is loaded. The perfect conclusion to a perfectly lovely quest. 
Taking time to step away from the Internet, social media, and your everyday routine is one of the most valuable gifts you can bring to your creativity. It's good to check in at various seasonal points and ask yourself where you really want to go and what the Universe is asking of you. Although I chose Labor Day to mark the end of summer, the actual equinox isn't until September 22--plenty of time to get your journal and plan your own personal vision quest for the next few months.

Tip of the Day: Taking a creative time-out for personal evaluation isn't the equivalent of math homework or any other kind of assignment. It doesn't have to follow a set formula and it certainly doesn't have to fit any preconceived plan. The only things you need are a peaceful setting, your favorite pen for jotting down notes, and an open mind. Enjoy the process, welcome the discovery.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Focusing on Picture Books

Playing with ideas in my sketchbook.
Watercolor and ink.

Now that Camp NaNoWriMo is finished, I've been focusing on "what's next?" I have plenty of choices, including: continue marketing my current novel, The Abyssal Plain; revise and edit my work-in-progress novel Ghazal; write some more short stories. They're all important, and I don't want to neglect any of them, but the one thing calling me the loudest is to illustrate the picture book I started writing in my "spare" time last year.

To get my head (and studio) together, I've narrowed down my art supplies to the materials I truly love. Items that no longer serve me have all gone to good homes at the many cultural and recreational centers around town. The list includes charcoal, acrylics, pastel pencils, and a dozen other dubious experiments that just aren't "me." It was vital that at one time or another I explored these many types of paints and pencils; if I hadn't, I would never have found my genuine voice, and how sorry I would have been to miss that opportunity!

But now I know what I like and what I don't, and for today's post I thought I would share the supplies I'm using for this current stage of my art journey, beginning with:

1. Sketchbooks! I could talk about sketchbooks forever, probably because they double so well as manuscript and other journals. I probably have too many going at once (seven, with one more waiting in the wings), but I can't resist the various bindings, sizes, and papers. Each one is endowed with its own special qualities that inspire different stylistic choices and subject matters. My favorite brands are: Strathmore, Stillman and Birn, Moleskine, and Bee Paper Products. 
2. Akashiya Watercolor Brush Pens. I discovered these gorgeous pens on the last day of my Taiwan trip a couple of years ago. At the time I only bought four colors: black, gray, green, and reddish-brown. When I got back home, I was so impressed with the strength of the colors that I had to find where I could buy a full set. It wasn't easy, but thank goodness for  What I love best about these pens is the tips are actual nylon brushes with tons of spring and sensitivity and the color they release is downright juicy. I've read several reviews complaining about the lack of light-fastness, which so far hasn't been a problem for me. Admittedly these pens are not for creating wall or gallery art, but neither are many brands of watercolors unless you buy top-of-the-line professional grade paints. Despite this possible failing, I highly recommend these pens for sketchbook use as well as any finished art intended for printing, such as greeting cards, or book illustration.

3. Water brushes.

A paintbrush already filled with water: what could be better? I particularly like the way these brushes work with the Akashiya pens; I can lay down some color then diffuse it with a few brushstrokes to create a myriad of effects. Water brushes can also be used with traditional watercolors or water-soluble pencils, great for travel. My only warning is that if you're planning to take them on an airplane, I suggest you first separate the water barrel from the brush to avoid any air locks, otherwise you'll never get the pieces apart again. (Stated from sad personal experience.)

3. Ink.

Sumi ink is my go-to for anything inky involving a dip pen or brush. I love the sheen, the permanency when used with watercolors, and the slightly embossed feel of the ink when it dries. On the negative side, sumi ink can be very, very messy and difficult to use if you want a precise, architectural-style line (I usually don't), and it's entirely unsuitable for any travel or outdoor sketching. For these situations I prefer using Tikky Rotring or Le Pen Drawing pens which contain excellent and smooth waterproof ink. My other two choices, a Pentel Stylus pen, and a Pilot super-fine nib fountain pen are fantastic drawing instruments, but the ink isn't waterproof, meaning I have to either forego watercolor, use colored pencils, or draw the lines in later.

4. Dip Pens.

My first choice for drawing thick, organic lines is always a bamboo stick pen. The tips blunt a little faster than I'd like, but they're not expensive to replace. For a more delicate approach, any brand of metal dip pen is good--they all work! What I like about dip pens is their tendency to be unpredictable which suits my style and sense of adventure. I actually like the random ink splatter, broken line, or unexpected "happy accident" that can provide a new direction and fresh life to a piece.

5. Watercolors.

When I lived in Georgia I never used anything but tube watercolors that I would then squish out onto a palette that stayed wet for weeks. The same humidity that kept my paints in a big puddle also prevented anything I was painting to ever dry faster than in a day or two. As much as I loved watercolors, I often hated their slow-drying properties, and I didn't use them as much as I do here in Albuquerque. Now that I'm in the desert, however, I LOVE watercolors. Whatever I paint dries in minutes, a great boon for impatient painters such as myself, except now the trouble lies in the tubes: not only do they dry up, but the caps become irremovable in just a matter of weeks. The solution, and one I like, is to use pan watercolors. They start out dry and it only takes a squirt of water from a spray bottle to reactivate them in seconds. Kuretake is my preferred brand (they makes sets with more than the 12 colors I've shown in the green box above), but recently I've discovered these generic blue-tinned watercolors sold under a variety of labels from both Amazon and craft stores that have surprised me with their quality and color range.

6.  Synthetic Brushes. 

I'm a vegetarian, but I do wear leather shoes and carry leather handbags on occasion. It's the same with my paintbrushes. I have some lovely Chinese real-hair brushes, and one cost-the-earth sable brush, but my first choice will always be a good synthetic. In the past they had a questionable reputation, but the quality has improved so much over the years that I find them better and easier to use than real fur. Princeton is my brand of choice, and I think what I like best about them is the way they make painting feel like writing, something that comes the most naturally to me.

7, Graphite Pencils. Blackwing. I'll say no more. Just try these pencils.

8. Canson Watercolor Paper.

When I'm not using my sketchbooks, I like to have a good piece of paper for both practice and finished artwork. Canson paper is ridiculously inexpensive--and very good! The paper comes in several sizes and is excellent for more than just watercolor, e.g., oil pastels and graphite. A very economical choice for both fun and serious work.

9. Arches watercolor paper.

This paper is my absolute No. 1. And it is pricey. Like, truly expensive. And totally worth it. And yes, I have messed it up, had to throw it away, and start all over again. All part of the learning curve. Sigh.

10. Gelli Printing Plate.

My Gelli Printing Plate has been the most fun and helpful tool I've come across. I use it to make random backgrounds for my work: spread a little acrylic paint on the surface (I know I said I don't like painting with acrylics, but they're a must-have for the plate. Gelli recommends using the cheapest, runniest, bottled brands with a high water content for easy spreading.), make some random marks with a paintbrush or Q-tip or whatever's handy, place a piece of paper on the plate, run your hands over the paper, and there you go--instant picture!

Tip of the Day: The nicest part of working on a picture book is I now have a great excuse to read picture books. In my opinion, they are the most important books in existence. I would not be who I am today without Little Bear, Babar, and The Lonely Doll. Not only did I learn to read with picture books, they instilled a life-long love of art, a desire to travel, and a world of friends and wisdom that will always be with me. Next time you're at the library or bookstore, treat yourself to visiting the children's shelves. Whether it's a trip down memory lane or a way to discover the latest trends and titles, you'll be glad you went.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Good-bye, #CampNaNoWriMo

Time to gather round the campfire one last night and say good-bye to CampNaNoWrimo. It was fun, it was crazy-making, and it was often challenging to reach those word quotas, but we did it. Yay! And as always, I hasten to assure my fellow writers that if the best you could do was churn out an outline and a chapter or two, you still got some writing done and that's a win for sure.

As with every adventure, the minute I come home I like to unpack, sort out my souvenirs, go through my ticket stubs and guidebooks, and reflect on what the trip meant to me. In the case of CampNaNo, I didn't have to go very far from home, but I still came back with a virtual bag of goodies, mainly in the form of knowledge. Things I learned include:
  • Choosing to write short stories rather than a novel wasn't as good an idea as I thought it would be. Don't get me wrong, I love writing short pieces, but it was sometimes difficult to end one story and then immediately begin working on a new topic with new characters, settings, and conflicts. I kept thinking I was "finished" with the whole thing only to have to start writing again. A novel, I believe, would have provided an easier flow of productivity.
  • On the positive side, however, when a story's plot-line bored or evaded me, it was easy to conclude it with either a "happily ever after" ending, or drop it completely. In the latter situation, I was sure to make notes on various possible endings for when I do go back to edit and revise. 
  • Whether I brought a story to a conclusion or not, I re-discovered and re-affirmed how much I love writing. I really do. First drafts are exciting. I can't imagine a life without them.
  • I also learned that I'm a true "pantster," i.e., someone who writes "by the seat of their pants." The one certainty that kept me enthused every day was not knowing what would happen next. My curiosity was all the motivation I needed.
  • I enjoyed being in a community of writers, especially being part of a cabin. It was encouraging to know other writers were busily typing or scribbling away, going through the same struggles and bursts of inspiration as me.
  • It was great to stop marketing my current novel-for-sale for a few weeks. Putting query letters, synopses, and bio-statements on hold for a month was heavenly.
  • Slow and steady does win the race. Although I did have some miraculous moments where I was able to write 4000+ words in a single session, in general I was happy sticking to anywhere between 1500-2000 words a day. I realized there's no need to over-achieve on days that are busy, chaotic, or full of unexpected catastrophe. Just 30-minutes a day can be more than enough to get that story written!
  • I'm glad I took the time to create both a book of writing prompts and an accompanying art journal to go with my manuscript. I'm looking forward to continuing with the journal, and my prompts are great subjects for illustration, particularly for my children's picture book WIP. Double-duty!
As a "take home" reward and gift to myself for attending camp every day, I've splurged on a new bottle of sumi ink, a pad of rice paper, a bunch of collage ephemera and papers, and a sketchbook designed solely for ink and markers. Oh, and a 20-piece set of my favorite Akashiya watercolor pens. (I was VERY well-behaved, LOL!) So here I go: ready and set to keep  on writing  and drawing till at least the end of the year.

Back in January, or even May for that matter, I had absolutely no intention of signing up for #CampNaNoWriMo. In fact, if you'd suggested I do so, I would have come up with a thousand ways to say no. Yet when I made my decision to join up the week before camp started, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Spontaneity is an important part of the creative process. Never let your plans become so rigid that you miss out on valuable, and unexpected, experience. 

Tip of the Day: Even with toasted marshmallows and dips in the pool, a solid month of writing can be exhausting. If you're finding yourself suffering from word-burn, a good way to take a break without losing your momentum is to switch your focus from writing text to activities such as designing your book cover, creating a book trailer, writing your log line, synopsis and query letter, and if necessary, putting together a detailed character and plot map. Not only will your energy levels increase, but you'll also have a wealth of fresh ideas for beginning your revision and marketing tasks. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reporting from #CampNaNoWriMo

Greetings from #CampNaNoWriMo! I'd love to say I'm sitting by an infinity pool sipping on an icy-cold margarita and booking in a massage for the afternoon, but the truth is I'm at work, the fan in my doorway is making a terrible racket, and the only thing vaguely tropical is the office rubber plant (and it's not doing that great in the Albuquerque heat). 

Consequently I've been thinking up a whole array of ways to improve my campsite, as well as my word count (only 460 words yesterday. Me and the rubber plant are wilting together). I decided I could do with some incentives, so here's my plan for the rest of the month:
  1. Treats. We all need some delicious snacks every now and then. What do you usually deny yourself, but would love to indulge in? In my case I'm heading to my local French bakery and splurging on some fancy little cakes. They cost the earth, but they're perfect for a once-in-a lifetime writing session tea break.
  2. Get outside a lot more. Yes, it's hot during the day, but in the evening or early morning my backyard is lovely. I should be out there more often, away from the fans and indoor stuffiness. For a change of scene I can also visit a park, nature reserve, or shady garden for a weekend field trip. Let's go!
  3. Speaking of field trips . . .  Writing in a museum, art gallery, mall, or somewhere you've never been before is a great way to shake up the muse, sometimes in life-changing ways. I remember one year going with my elementary school Bible camp to Forest Lawn Cemetery for the day. In retrospect I'm not sure that would be my first choice for a group of ten-year-olds, but it was a trip I'll never forget. It's also managed to work its way as both a setting and plot point into several of my manuscripts.
  4. Camp clothes. Fact: I write best when I'm dressed in my sloppiest clothes. The more comfortable I am, the easier it is for me to get into that creative place beyond time and space. Still, it would be nice to have a dedicated camp outfit that reminds me to stay on track: a special T-shirt in particular. Shopping as a field trip? You bet!
  5. Arts and crafts. It's important to take a break from writing, but without worrying that you're wasting time or losing valuable word-counts. My solution is to work in a "Camp Art Journal." I'm collaging and painting my manuscript themes, characters, and plot lines, as well as recording my thoughts and emotions about camp into a new journal. It gives me some necessary down-time while continuing to stay focused.
  6. Library books and visits. I love to get out of the heat by diving into some air-conditioned library research. Subjects I can only discover by perusing the shelves has always helped shift my writing into new and often surprising places. This month has found me engrossed with a biography of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, with more books stacked up for later reading on the art and history of China.
  7. Midnight feasts. When I was seven a cousin introduced me to the concept of the midnight feast. I had no idea what she meant, but boy, was I determined to try it out. I have a vague memory of waking up for a few minutes to eat a sandwich before promptly falling asleep again, but as grown-ups we can stay up way later than our usual bedtimes. Sometime before the month is over I want to set up a cozy writing nook for some late-night pages and feasting.
  8. Campfires. Campfires and storytelling have gone together from the beginning of time. If you have a fire pit or similar in your backyard, now's the chance to use it for some writerly inspiration. Currently I don't have the luxury of a log fire crackling away in the great outdoors, but I realized I can create the same ambience with candles grouped in the fireplace, or set up on a safe and sturdy table. There's something magical about writing to the glow of dancing flames, especially at midnight!
  9. Write postcards home. Be your own best friend and send yourself some encouragement. I love buying postcards when I travel for art references, but I almost never write on them. This month I'm going to jot down my thoughts on some of my favorite cards and then put them away in an envelope "mailbox" for whenever I need some extra motivation.
  10. Set a timer. I always find 20-30 minutes to be a good length of time for individual writing sessions, and this month is no exception. Once the bell rings I try to take an equal amount of time to stretch, walk, and have a cold drink. After all, this is vacation writing, not homework.
  11. Whirligigs. You know, gel pens in 24 colors, rubber stamps, glitter glue, gold paper clips--whatever makes the writing seem more fun than actually writing and tricks me into playing with words--I'll use it.
  12. Farewell gifts--to you! Decisions, decisions. What will you give yourself for sticking to an entire month of writing and reaching your 50K goal? I don't know what I'm getting yet, but I'm open to suggestion. Whatever you choose for yourself, I hope it will forever remind you of a happy month of writing camp.
Tip of the Day: What would summer be without a picnic? The next time you go on your writing field trip, pack a lunch, eat outside, and soak up the scenery. Be sure to use some or all of it in your story!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Welcome to #CampNaNoWriMo

As a child, I loved summer camping. Although I never got the chance to attend one of those fancy camps where you sleep in a cabin named "Wisheemeemoo" and swim in a lake for weeks on end, I did get to go on many Girl Scout weekend expeditions that I absolutely adored. Cherished memories include watching an owl glide past a background of stars while I watched from the safety of my sleeping bag, and the morning I gathered with Scouts and Girl Guides from all over the world to sing "Rise and Shine" at the top of our lungs. Camp was fun--a rare chance to run around in the woods, get dirty, and play with fire, aka learning to cook.

As an adult, I've retained the camping bug, but now days I prefer the ease of an RV and a proximity to five-star restaurants. If a camp site hasn't got an espresso bar and hair dryers, I'm ready to keep on driving. Which is part of the appeal of signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo: I can hang out in my blanket fort writing my heart out for an entire month with all the comforts of home. And the espresso is free.

I didn't intend to join my fellow writer-campers until this past weekend when I realized I'd finished up so many pre-set tasks from my New Year's list I had nothing to do (well, sort of nothing to do. My lists are essentially endless. . .). But cleaning out my home office on Saturday I realized I've got my manuscripts with agents; I'd completed the second draft of my Taiwan poetry as well as the accompanying series of illustrations; and I'd made so many pairs of earrings I'm completely beaded-out, for the moment at least. Hence the need for a new and compelling challenge. Welcome to Camp NaNoWriMo!

Sponsored by and similar to November's National Novel Writing Month, July's Camp NaNoWriMo requires a commitment to writing 50K words in a single month, but with a key difference: you can write whatever you want. Memoirs, poetry, screenplays, how to train your new puppy--it's all good. Heck, you can even write a novel if that's what your heart desires. In my case this is not what my heart desires--I have enough novels in various states of revision and submission to last me a lifetime, thank you, but I do very much want to write some short stories.

To get ready for the adventure I've:
  • Joined an online "cabin" with nineteen other writer-campers.
  • Prepared a new binder with a variety of writing prompts in the form of magazine photos, strange and obscure sentence fragments, and some outright commands, e.g. Write about a pair of shoes. I'll be using my prompts at random and keeping track of my progress by printing out my pages each day to file in the binder. 
  • Bought some new pens and a journal.
  • Filled the freezer with Trader Joe's ready-to-heat meals and supplies.
  • Cleared the decks of any marketing tasks for my other books. I need to stay focused.
I'm excited; I can't wait for July 1 to roll around so I can get on board the writing bus and head off to the hills with my Alphasmart and a backpack full of ideas. Now to just find the sunscreen. . . 

Tip of the Day: Here's an idea: pull up a tent and join me for some writing! Even if you don't officially sign up for camp, July is a good half-way point in the year to re-evaluate. re-assign, and re-dedicate yourself to your creative goals. As a reward you can make yourself some s'mores. And don't forget your bathing suit. See you in the crafts room.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Food, Glorious Food!

I've been thinking a lot about food, mainly because I haven't been able to eat much of it thanks to an emergency dental issue. All my favorite go-to writing snacks, e.g. carrot sticks, wasabi crackers, tortilla chips, cheese, etc. have been put on hold in favor of soup and endless glasses of water-and-lemon. And if you think writing and liquids make a good combo, let me tell you, they do not.

I don't know why I get so hungry when I write, and it's even worse when I read. I am a born snacker-grazer (thank goodness I love carrots) and one of my pet peeves when reading an otherwise engaging book is the lack of any mention or description of food. Whether the characters are dining on lobster bisque at a five-star luxury resort, or heating up beenie-weenies on a campfire, I want to know. 

Food, to me, is vital to a story: Meg's first disastrous dinner "party" in Little Women; Proust and his madeleine dipped in tea; "Babette's Feast"; Like Water for Chocolate; William Saroyan eating a messy peach in The Human Comedy. In other words, a story without food is like some miserable diet--impossible to follow!

Both the consumption and preparation of food can play a magical part in your own writing. For instance,
  • Food can be the basis of an entire memoir: one triggered by family recipes; favorite holiday meals; what you cooked when where, and why; favorite cookbooks; good and bad restaurant experiences. Tip: a fun way to start is to write a recipe as a letter to a friend--real or imaginary. Spin off into tangents of freewriting as you go.
  • Food can be the subject of a poem or short story, or a whole collection.
  • Food and meal prep can be great ways to "show, don't tell" when exploring fictional characters, and even writing action scenes. What do your characters love, hate, won't for anything? What about their attitudes to cooking--good, bad, indifferent? Do they prefer to order take-out? How do they feed kids, pets, spouses? Are they vegetarian, gluten-free, suffer from unusual food allergies? What's their favorite snack, adult beverage, brand of chocolate? There are so many possibilities I sometimes think you could write a complete character-bio made up solely of food choices and experiences.
Some other ways to include food in your writing can be to:
  • Create a character who specializes in food preparation and the pleasures of the table: A chef, a restaurant owner, a food critic, an artisan cheese maker.
  • Dig into cookbooks and food magazines. Both are excellent resources when you need to find new meals for your characters to enjoy, especially if you're writing about characters in foreign settings. I'm a great fan of food magazines in particular and often cut out the actual recipes along with the accompanying gorgeous photos to place in my work-in-progress files. The photos can later be used for painting references and collage elements. 
  • Use your favorite restaurant as a setting. Better yet--try writing while you're there!
  • Never overlook the opportunity to write your own cookbook, how-to article, or restaurant review, whether for print or online. The same applies to starting and maintaining a food blog if you find yourself falling in love with the idea of culinary writing in all its many aspects.
However you choose to write about food, the one thing I'd like to suggest is never ignore it. There's nothing worse, I think, than to read about a character who never eats unless he or she is some kind of mystic or suffering from an eating disorder. I once read an otherwise excellent mystery set in Barcelona, the home of the world's best tapas, where the characters lived on nothing but coffee. They didn't even get cake! I couldn't stop wondering how they maintained enough energy to catch the bad guys when they never stopped at a single cafe or convenience store. I was starving by the time I finished the book. 

Tip of the Day: As fun as it is to gorge characters on sushi and streudel, you don't want to bore your readers with endless step-by-step descriptions of all-day banquets or baking marathons. Like the best recipes: keep it light, keep it simple, and always keep it tasty. Bon app├ętit! 

P.S. The good news is my mouth is on the mend--I'll soon be crunching on those yummy carrots in no time at all! See you next time.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How to Solve any Problem with Beads

Some of the beads I've gathered abroad,
or just from a trip to the craft store.

How to Solve any Problem with Beads. Really? Well, that's the title/theme I've just been given from my latest discovery: a blog post generator! 

Back story: I was scrolling through Twitter (when I was supposed to be editing my poetry manuscript) when I read a tweet that totally intrigued me, a reference to using a blog post generator. Naturally, I had to check it out, mainly because I've never come across a creativity generator I didn't like. Whether it's been to name a foreign character, find a setting for my National Novel Writing Month plot, or match a profession to a villain, generators are fun. 

The blog post generator I found was no exception, the only difference being that I had to enter three nouns before the generator could assign my topic. My choices were: creativity, beads, and writing. I then clicked on "go" and ta-dah: How to Solve any Problem with Beads. 

I had a good laugh, and then thought, hey, why not? That's a great topic! The only trouble was, I didn't know whether it meant how to solve big problems, like, how to bring about world peace, or how to get your neighbor's dog to stop barking; or did it mean, how to solve any problems you're having with beading, such as how to correctly fit those pesky crimp covers used for finishing the ends of necklaces and bracelets. If so, I have to admit I don't have any solutions for crimp covers (the bane of my beading life) other than try, try, try again, but I also know that in the trying I've been able to zone out and solve (or at least meditate upon) quite a few day-to-day challenges including writing and painting problems.

My (tiny) bead table.

I know I'm not alone in my fascination with beads. Beads in all forms and shapes have a long history of decorative and spiritual use, from Buddhist malas to Christian rosaries and burial relics in ancient grave sites.

5000-year-old beads I saw at the National  
History Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

I've always been particularly intrigued by a story I once heard on NPR about the tradition of making rosaries from actual rose petals. The petals are boiled, rolled and formed into beads for drying and stringing. Holding the finished rosary in one's hands supposedly emits a strong scent of roses, something that must be quite heavenly to experience.

Unfortunately, I can't get a rose bush to thrive long enough to bloom, let alone think of gathering its petals for bead-making. On the other hand, finding beads while traveling, even if it's only to the next town has solved the  "what to bring home as a souvenir or gift" dilemma nicely. 

More than anything, beading has been a way for me to take a break from writing or painting, although there are some nice parallels to the visual arts, especially when it comes to working with color. I often like to start with a single shade and then search out whatever in my collection matches or complements that choice. Once I have all the beads I think I might want to use, I rarely settle on one design; I change, rearrange, or completely re-think the entire scheme several dozen times before I'm satisfied with the outcome.

Works-in-progress! Note the tiny gold crimp
covers lying there all on their loathsome lonesome. 
I'll get to them . . . soon . . . 

Right now I'm doing my best to solve my bead storage problem. It's amazing how many little containers and boxes are required to keep everything in order. For a born-minimalist like me, it's a nightmare. To make more room I've decided to use up all the beads I have before I buy anything new. Part of this clean-up effort has been to toss the less-attractive beads I've been hanging on to for no good reason other than they were part of my favorite way of buying beads in grab bags--random assortments that suit the puzzle-solver in me to a T. Now if I could just get those crimp covers to work . . . 

Tip of the Day: Try beading! A simple way to dive in is to visit your local bead or craft store and buy not only a grab bag but a few "focal beads," the larger, flashier beads meant for the center of a necklace or bracelet. You don't have to make jewelry or buy expensive tools to get started. Instead, string a few beads together to tie on to gift packages, the ends of bookmarks, or to decorate your journal. After that, you might want to carry on to the real thing, thereby giving yourself all kinds of interesting problems to solve. Happy Summer!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Spring Get-Away: Corpus Christi, TX

I've just come back from a week's holiday in Corpus Christi, Texas, a place I've wanted to see for many years after taking a workshop from poet Denise Brennan Watson. In the workshop, Denise often referred to her childhood in Corpus Christi and how it influenced her found poetry and food writing, as well as her love of cooking and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking: or, Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (which in many ways inspired my own WIP Ghazal). When I read The Undertow of Hunger, Denise's first full poetry collection, I was completely hooked. I just had to go to Corpus Christi one day.

Now that I've been there, I realize there was a lot I didn't know: mainly that the wind blows every single day and night, as in every single second of every day and night; the seagulls are small and cute but even noisier than the howling wind; the seawater is warm but posted signs warning of currents and jellyfish kept me from doing much more than wading; and the town itself can be rather empty. For an entire week my husband and I rattled around the quite lovely downtown all on our own, wondering where the other people were. I'm still wondering. However, it was nice to never have trouble finding a parking spot, the store owners and restaurant servers were polite and glad to see us, and the only panhandler we encountered asked for a dollar and then changed his mind, saying he "didn't really want it."

Despite the blustery weather, heavy thunderstorms, and getting my thumb smashed in our hotel room door when the wind whistled through the hall one particularly wild afternoon, we saw some impressive sights. Our room was right on the beach, and we could see the USS Lexington, now a museum, from our balcony. I loved how it was lit up at night recalling its nickname the "Blue Ghost", creating a ghostly and haunting image indeed. Going on board in the morning was even more intriguing. A trip that I thought would take half an hour at most turned into a four-hour exploration of decks, captain's and crew quarters, galleys, sick bay, chapel, engine room, bridge, and all thoroughly re-constructed to depict how life would have been on board during WWII. I was fascinated and frequently moved by the well-presented exhibits, and took the elevator only once at the end of the tour. After climbing and descending dozens of ladders placed throughout the ship I was grateful for the chance to simply push a button and ascend into daylight again. Well worth the visit and I do highly recommend going there if you're in the area one day (and feeling fit).

Another great place next to our hotel was this beach store that carried every kind of towel, flipper, swimsuit, T-shirt, and souvenir any tourist could possibly want. We bought a wind chime (what else??).

The Art Center was yet another good venue, complete with a restaurant where we had morning tea and cake while a local Irish band fiddled away:

Foggy, mysterious, yet pleasantly warm:

This (scary) (in the wind) bridge connected our hotel to downtown. I think we crossed it 500 times, but my husband claims it was only 499:

More views from our room. A beach of our own!

I wasn't able to sketch in the wind, but I did take some photos specifically for a future series of "Urban Sketching-style" drawings:

On our last day we visited the Aquarium. Although we were indoors, I couldn't sketch there either because it was apparently Kindergarten Day: hundreds of tiny tots in matching T-shirts to identify themselves as five-year-olds (just so there was no confusion with the few adults in attendance). I don't know which was louder: the wind, the gulls, or the children, but coming home to Albuquerque I'm still in awe of the silence.

Final shot of the docks. I think this would make a good painting, too:

Between wind gusts we went to some excellent restaurants (the Vietnamese one being my favorite. Breakfast with a city view upstairs at the Omni Hotel was also spectacular.), saw several movies, including "King Kong, Skull Island" (perfect escapism) and "Gold" which we soon recognized as having been filmed in Albuquerque! Other highlights were finding a bead store where I bought new beads for new jewelry projects, and going to Barnes and Noble where I purchased a book I'm still reading: Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves. I love it, and will forever pair it in my mind with a beautiful old city I'm glad I got the chance to see. Thank you, Corpus Christi, for an unforgettable time!