Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Highlights of 2021

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Happy Holidays, everyone! Another year closing down, with plenty of time for reflection, celebration, and even a little joy. We can do it!

Around this time of year I always like to make a list of my most exciting or interesting highlights, the things that made the year special and/or memorable in some significant way. 2021 may still have been a difficult year to navigate, but there were definitely lighter moments, more feelings of optimism, and more opportunities to socialize than we had in 2020. Throughout it all, the one thing I truly learned was that we can always look for the silver lining, no matter what, and the following list comprises my own, personal top twelve:

1. I finished my work-in-progress novel, Ghazal. This was a big deal, I can tell you! What started out several years ago as a NaNoWriMo exercise took over my imagination and wouldn't let me go. I had to know more about my characters and their stories, and here we are today: a whole, finished manuscript.

2. In October I opened my first Etsy shop selling my handmade beaded necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. You can see them all by clicking here. Come on over and let me know what you think!

3. I got the chance to see some good friends again. After months and months of isolation, it was a major event to meet up in a cafe and share our various creative projects and plans while eating some great food. Just like we did in the "old days."

4. Albuquerque Urban Sketchers took the plunge and resumed their monthly meetings. I wasn't able to attend all of the outings, but the ones I got to participate in were both educational and inspiring.

5. Spring brought the opportunity to attend a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum. It was great to rejoin the world through history and culture. And of course the artwork was spectacular.

6. I started work on two new book ideas. One is a mystery, the other is a historical Southern Gothic. Currently they are both messy first drafts that only make sense to me (sort of) but they will be interesting projects to carry with me into the new year.

7. My local library became so overloaded with donations they had a massive sale that continued for most of the summer. 50% off books that were originally priced at no more than one to two dollars each meant I got an entirely new shelf of excellent art books.

8. I signed up for and took several more Domestika online art classes. One of my absolute favorites was about starting and maintaining a sketchbook practice taught by artist Sorie Kim. 

9. And thanks to Sorie I filled several sketchbooks this year, exploring many new ideas, mediums, and subjects. Who knew I liked to draw frogs and lizards so much?

10. Which then led me to buy professional watercolors for the first time ever. I tried two different brands and with completely different results. It was an interesting experiment as I had no idea high quality paints could vary so wildly from brand to brand. In the end I had to discard one as being absolutely horrible: the colors faded into the page, no juicy life or sparkle, just very disappointing to use. On the other hand, my second brand, Winsor and Newton, gave me everything I was looking for: strong and vivid color from the first layer and a "brightness" that encouraged me to keep painting.

11. This might sound a bit desperate, but in July when we were able to go mask-free for a few weeks I got a professional haircut at a genuinely fancy-pantsy salon. At the time I went it was my first cut in over 18 months and it was a true joy. Due to renewed restrictions I haven't been back since, but it makes a nice memory. I'm sure to go back one day!

12. Caved and subscribed to Netflix. I'm still undecided on how good a move this was, but with my local movie theater having closed down permanently and not much else happening in town, TV is a welcome relief after a day of work, writing, and sketch-booking. There have certainly been some good series and films (amongst a sea of questionable others) and it was fun to not be the only kid on the block who didn't know what Squid Game was. Television, for all its faults and propaganda, can certainly be a comforting way to unite with distant friends, family, as well as total strangers and I was glad to take part.

In between all of these highlights there were of course plenty of simple but wonderful days painting on my balcony, enjoying a cup of tea, and walking through my amazing neighborhood. It may have taken a bit of digging, but there was always something meaningful and unforgettable to be found, each and every day. It was a year well spent.

Tip of the Day: The next time you find yourself seated by the fire or just beside a frosty window, be sure to have your pen and journal with you. Take some time to record and consider what made 2021 a year to remember; the highs, the lows, the things that made the year unique. I hope you'll discover there were many more moments of joy than you may have realized at first and that you'll be motivated to keep creating more. 

Wishing you all a brilliant 2022!

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Introducing my Etsy Shop: Valerie Storey Designs


At last! I'm so happy to announce the opening 

of my Etsy Shop: 

Valerie Storey Designs

"Inspired by the past, created for today."

Earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pendants -- I have a brand! Everything is handmade by me, one-of-a-kind, never to be repeated and all with free USA shipping. 

Here's a small selection from the sixteen items I'm currently listing:


Although quite a few of the individual beads I've used were purchased right here in Albuquerque, many of them are from all over the world, collected during my travels to places such as Taiwan, Portugal, and Spain. I'm always looking for distinctive, unusual beads whenever possible, and often these are only available in very small quantities, guaranteeing that whatever I make from them will be one-time-only pieces.

Similar to the way I write and paint, my approach to beading depends a lot on the magic of randomness. I start with a handful of color (oh, how I love color!) and let the beads find their own way into a design often inspired by my many years spent visiting museums and galleries. Art history has always had a big influence in everything I do, inspiring my novels such as Overtaken and The Great Scarab Scam, but it's still a huge surprise to me to see how a piece will turn out: Egyptian, Etruscan Revival, mid-century modern: every bead tells a story!

One of the most surprising things to have come out of all this is my new appreciation for photography. Etsy requires a wide variety of product shots, and I have to admit the process was difficult for me to learn--I almost gave up at one point I found it so hard. But after several days of trial and error, I think I'm on the right track to figuring it all out: light boxes, satin drapery, as much daylight as possible . . . confusing at first, but like all creative endeavors, definitely worth pursuing.

Anyway, I hope you like my efforts and that you can visit my shop in time for the holidays! Over the coming weeks I'll be listing new items, so please stay tuned.

Tip of the Day: While I will always consider myself first and foremost a writer, art, beading, and working with hand-built pottery has enriched my life beyond measure. I can't imagine a day going by without at least a few minutes sketching or working on a new design for a bracelet or pair of earrings. The strongest advantage of having these varied interests is that they really do feed each other, especially when I'm stuck or hit some kind of road-block. Going back and forth between, say, a difficult scene in a particular chapter, to figuring out if blue beads look better with gold or silver findings, keeps my imagination active and open to receive the answers I need. Better than working solely on one project until you reach potential burn-out, always try to have another creative outlet ready and waiting. You'll be glad you did! 

UPDATE: Please note my shop has now moved to Valeriestorey.com

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Make the Summer Last

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Today is the last day of summer and I'm not very happy about it. Don't get me wrong, I love the fall and its "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," but this year I just can't seem to make the leap into duvets and cocoa. I want to make the summer last forever; phrases like "endless summer" sound perfect to my ears.
I wasn't always so eager to stay in summer mode or to keep wearing my standard summer wardrobe of shorts, T-shirts, and sandals for months on end. I used to genuinely look forward to watching the stores fill with fuzzy sweaters, coats, scarves and gloves while I wished the weather would hurry up and change so I could wear all those cozy items. One thing that I especially used to enjoy was the whole "back to school" vibe, but with online learning and nobody really in the classroom, I can't get excited about buying notebooks, pens, or art supplies. Even if the prices are crazy low (notebooks for 25 cents!) I find myself walking past the well-stocked shelves and thinking, nah, I don't need anything new.

My reluctance to leave summer probably has a lot to do with the fact that my every single waking summer moment seemed to be completely dedicated to work, both at my day job as well as with my creative life. Being consumed with work and productivity without the opportunity for much diversion meant I missed out on summer fun: no real vacation time, no trips out of town or overseas, no break in routine. Yes, I got a lot done, but, hey, I want to go to Paris!

These last few days have found me trying to make up for lost time with as much R&R as possible. Oddly enough, I subsequently discovered that I could be just as productive, maybe even more so, if I did give myself a break, such as:

  • Sitting on my balcony, staring at nothing, doodling in my watercolor sketchbooks: squirrels, goldfish, trees and leaves. The feeling that I didn't have to do this only made me want to do more of the same. Consequently I filled up an entire sketchbook in a couple of weekends.
  • Reading. Reading inspired me to jot down several new story ideas I wouldn't have discovered if I hadn't taken the time to, once again, sit on my balcony and dive into a stack of new books feeling wonderfully "lazy."
  • Going through old magazines at a leisurely and quiet pace has given me a huge, fresh supply of magazine cut-outs, suitable for both art and writing references.
  • Experimenting with a variety of gel, fountain, and brush pens encouraged me to freewrite several unexpected poems, snippets of dialogue, and scene descriptions I had no idea were out there waiting for me.
  • Walking for at least an hour in between writing, reading, and painting and with no destination in mind has given me time to think, ponder, plan, and regroup. Rather than wearing myself out, I became totally re-energized.
  • Restaurants. Because we hadn't taken any kind of holiday, my husband and I decided at the start of the month to go out to eat a little more than we usually do. Which then gave me extra time to read, paint, walk, and write without worrying about grocery shopping or clean-up. Delicious!

Time has become more precious to me than ever before. There is a lot I still want and need to do, but there's a lot I don't want to miss out on, such as feeling the sun on my face as I drink a second cup of jasmine tea with no particular agenda in mind. All good things that can be transformed into stories and illustrations once the temperature drops and I'm forced back inside my office-studio listening to the rain pummel the roof. It will be here soon enough.

Tip of the Day: Art journaling is a fun and easy way to make the summer last. Base your journal exclusively on what the summer of 2021 meant to you, or choose a favorite year from your childhood. Brainstorm or create mind-maps listing every special detail. Use your summer photos for sketch references. List and review any books you read. Write, draw, collage your memories and be sure to pour a cup of cocoa while you're at it!

Monday, July 26, 2021

I Finished My WIP! Now What?


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It only took about a year longer than planned, but I am happy to announce my work-in-progress novel, Ghazal, is finally, really and truly finished. The End. I made it!

Of course, now the big question is: what's next? Until it's published, is a work-in-progress ever finished? What steps do I, or anyone else who's completed a WIP, have to take in order to get the manuscript into print?

Here's my road map:

1. The first thing I always do upon finishing a manuscript at any draft stage is to print it out and put it away. I make sure I don't even peek at a single page for at least four to six weeks.

2. Once my manuscript is safely locked away, I take a break. Lunch with friends. Shopping, Drawing, beading--even a writing challenge such as Camp NaNoWriMo with a new story in mind can be a refreshing break.

 3. The next step after all those weeks of fun is to take the manuscript out of storage and read the whole thing through, but with this sole promise: that I will not, under any circumstance, write any kind of notes on the manuscript. Instead, I like to have a legal pad and pen ready to list my page and line numbers that contain typos, grammatical blunders, glaring plot holes or character inconsistencies such as wrong birth dates or a jumbled timeline. 

4. When I'm finished with that task, I then transcribe my list item by item onto index cards. I then go through the manuscript and clip my cards to the appropriate pages. I still don't rush to "fix" anything yet. Instead, I continue to let the manuscript rest while I write out the best ways to make my corrections. This is because sometimes rather than fixing a typo I might replace it with a better word choice, or I may eliminate the word altogether. The same goes for plot holes; filling them in too quickly can sometimes lead to an entirely new set of difficulties.

5. When I'm certain that I've found my problem areas, I use the notes on my index cards to make my corrections and then print out a fresh manuscript copy. 

6. My next job is to create a chapter-by-chapter outline. For this I again use index cards and note down the one-to-two most important scenes per chapter. I then type the list into chapter order. At the same time I also like to consider what the purpose of each chapter is. I do this for both my own notes and as a possible addition to the outline if I feel it will shed more light on the individual chapers.

7. Now that I have my outline, I write a one-sentence log line describing my book: a character, what he/or she wants, why they can't have it . . . . Very concise, very simple.

8. From this small start I then write a one-paragraph book description.

9. Followed by a one-page synopsis.

10. Followed by a two-page synopsis.

11. I then write at least three different types of bio-notes: a few sentences; one paragraph; half a page.

12. I research agents, editors, and contests.

13. I then write a query letter based on my synopsis.

14. My final step is to create 12 separate submission packages each one tweaked to individual agent requirements (e.g. one agent wants a letter, a one-page synopsis, the first chapter. Another might want a letter, an outline, a one-paragraph bio and the first 50 pages. Whatever, I like to have each piece prepared for when and how it's needed.)  Once my packages are ready, I send them out, usually by email or through an online submission form.

15. And while my book is doing the rounds, I get to work on my next manuscript. Yep, it never ends!

Tip of the Day: The whole secret to this final stage of manuscript preparation and submission is to remember Rome wasn't built in a day. It's tempting to want to get the whole thing over and done with and as quickly as possible, but baby steps are key. Set aside 30-minutes to an hour a day solely to work on each of the above steps. Take your time and enjoy the process. And keep writing!

Monday, June 28, 2021

Camp NaNoWrimo 2021: 31 Prompts for 31 Days


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Who's up for Camp NaNoWriMo? Me, for one! I can't believe I'm saying this, but come July I'm going for it. I am so ready for a new writing project, especially because my WIP novel, Ghazal, will be officially, completely, finally FINISHED and fully edited on July 4th. Yep. Fireworks, watermelon, silly hats--I want it all because the journey (at least until I begin submission and publication) is over. So where better to celebrate than camp?

The nice thing about Camp NaNoWriMo is you can set your own goals: 50K words for the month, 100K, 30 pages, whatever feels right. This year I am foregoing word and/or page quotas and simply choosing to write, by hand, for 30-60 minutes a day. Nice and simple and very relaxing.

To make the experience extra easy and fun, I've created my own list of prompts that I'm happy to share with you. Feel free to use any or all of them, in any order, or even shake them up with your own ideas and additions. Here we go:

Camp NaNoWriMo 2021 Writing Prompts

1. My favorite prompt of all time is from Natalie Goldberg, so it's the perfect place to start: Freewrite from the words "I remember" using your main character's point of view.

2. Develop a back story for your primary antagonist or villain that has made him/her who they are today.

3. Write a scene that includes the arrival of a puzzling gift from an unknown source.

4. Write about your characters' relationships to food.

5. Create fictional homes and neighborhoods for your characters. Include maps for extra credit.

6. Write about something your main character avoids doing and why.

7. Write about your characters' worst fears. Make note of how these could appear in a big way at the end of your story.

8. Write about a serious misunderstanding your main character has with a family member.

9. Your main character has to travel somewhere they don't want to go to. Choose a destination and write a scene where they are a fish out of water.

10. Write about your main character's favorite childhood memory and why it's important to your story.

11. Write about your main character's worst holiday experience. Now do the same for your antagonist.

12. Put your character in a natural setting, a park, a nature reserve, a lonely forest. Why are they there? What are they doing? How could this develop your plot?

13. Research an unusual profession and then find a way to include it in your story.

14. Go somewhere and observe a stranger. Create a role for this person in your story.

15. Write a scene where your characters who have been friendly with each other are now beyond furious.

16. Find a painting you love and write about why your main character loves it too. Turn it into a metaphor that can be used in your story.

17. Write about a terrible encounter your main character has with an animal.

18. Write about your main character or antagonist suddenly encountering a family member they didn't know they had.

19. What is the emotion your main character is terrified of expressing? Write a scene where they have to express it or lose something or someone important to them.

20. Make a word pool. Cut out 30 interesting words and headlines from magazines. See if you can use any as prompts for today as well as any future writing sessions.

21. Write a scene where your main character suddenly falls ill. What's wrong with them? How could this affect your story?

22. Write a letter from your main character to someone they miss being with.

23. Write about a memory your main character has never shared. Why is it so painful or private?

24. Write a scene with your main character set in a moving car or truck. Where are they going and why? Now do the same for your antagonist.

25. Create an imaginary still life from objects in your main character's house. Write about each object and the memory associated with it.

26. Write about your antagonist visiting a cemetery. Who have they gone to see and why?

27. Write a scene that involves your antagonist spying on your main character. What do they see, hear, do?

28. Write about a special event your main character doesn't want to attend. Why don't they want to be there? Send them anyway.

29. Write about your antagonist's happiest day.

30. Write the full ending to your story, even if you have 300 pages left to go.

31. Cut out five magazine images (people, places, things) and see where they could fit into scenes you have already written to give added depth, description, and value.

Tip of the Day: Most of these prompts are springboards to dig into characters' backgrounds, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. My plan for when I'm finished is to take what I discover and then create an outline for a full-fledged plot. That way, come November 2021, I'll be thoroughly prepared for, you guessed it: NaNoWriMo 50K! See you in the craft room.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

7 Ways to Stay Creative Every Day


Quick pastel pencil and watercolor study on Arches paper. 20 minutes.

Stay creative every day. It's a great idea, but how do you really put it into practice? Especially on the days when time goes by like quicksilver and you barely have time to breathe, let alone work on your novel or latest series of pen and ink marine sketches.

Life has been a lot like that for me this last month. I'm lucky if I get to revise a single WIP page a day. Don't even mention editing a full chapter. But none of that means I've given up on my creativity or any of my on-going projects. What it does mean is that I've had to maintain momentum, keeping the ball rolling on the days when my time and energy are so limited it seems I will never complete a single project this year.

After a lot of trial and error, though, I've discovered seven things I can do to keep my creativity afloat on both the good and bad days, starting with: 

1. Eat breakfast. Lunch and dinner too. Not only is a balanced, healthy diet good for boosting your spirits and stamina throughout the day, it can also be an overlooked source of daily creativity. Preparing meals that you enjoy on both a culinary and visual level can easily go beyond just finding something to eat. How about sketching, photographing, or writing about your favorite meals before or after eating? Who knows, you might end up with a cookbook, or a memoir. If nothing else you can add the same meals to feed your fictional characters on the written page. I love books that make me hungry for a serving of pad thai or a plate of brie and fresh garden pears. For some helpful ideas on how to use food in your writing as well as what to cook for yourself, visit my posts on how to use food in your writing, along with vegetarian meal suggestions and how to make The Colonel's Muesli for the best breakfast ever.

2. Find time to sit still and do nothing. Call it a nap, meditation, or sheer idleness, but it's good to sit still, close your eyes, and release the need to "stay busy" for at least 15 minutes a day. Be comfortable with letting the world spin for a bit without feeling that you have to help push it along. Once you've learned to relax into "non-action" you'll also be amazed at how many ideas and solutions to creative dilemmas will come to mind.

3. Spend 20 minutes making friends with your tools and materials. Experiment. Play. Scribble some pastels on toned paper. Arrange some magazine cut-outs into a quick collage or a found poem. Freewrite with purple gel pens. The key is to go fast. In under half an hour you'll have accomplished at least two objectives: 1) You've exercised your creative muscles, and 2) You will have a piece of art or writing that can either be considered a finished piece or a starting point for further exploration. And all on the day you thought you'd never get anything done. A genuine win-win.

4. Read. I can't imagine a day without reading--fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays--and I hope you can't either. Literature feeds the soul. To me it's as important (maybe more so!) as food. The only downside to falling in love with a wonderful book or story is wanting to stay with it, "just one more chapter!" Which is usually when you realize you've been reading so long you haven't done a thing to foster your own creative pursuits. My answer to this is to set a timer for when I want to read during the day (30 minutes is perfect), or I use reading as a reward, what I get to do after I've written my own word quotas or filled in a few sketchbook pages. Another tactic is to read only at night, choosing a book over a movie or TV program.

5. Declutter. Toss or recycle at least one item a day: an old piece of mail; a worn-out T-shirt; a spool with 10 inches of thread left on it. We all have things that are unnecessary, taking up needed space without adding anything in return, or belongings that we can't stand having in our lives any longer. The other night I overhead someone say, "If you don't like it, throw it away." At first I was a little shocked, but then it made total sense. How can you maintain a creative life with things that disturb you, or that keep you stuck in some debilitating way? Surround yourself with only what inspires you, or as Marie Kondo teaches, "brings you joy."

6.  Develop a "limited" journal style. While journaling is always an excellent creative pursuit in itself, it can easily be neglected while we're immersed in a larger project. Either we're too busy to journal, or worse, feel we don't have anything to write about. My answer here is to think in terms of 12. Open your journal and number from 1-12, leaving as much space between lines as you think you'll need to express a full thought. When you're finished, jot down twelve amazing things that happened during the day. Or twelve things you liked about the book you're reading, or twelve things you don't like. Twelve things to be grateful for. Twelve possibilities for your next WIP scene. Twelve things you'd like to paint or draw. Use any of the twelve points as subjects to journal about in more depth when you have more time.

7. Set out what you need to accomplish your next day's work. Before you go to bed each night, choose what it is you want to do with your creativity the following day or weekend. Perhaps you want to work on a particular chapter of your WIP, or you want to prepare a collection of magazine headlines to have ready for a found poem. Decide what you need to have available to fulfill your task and then assemble the pieces, laying everything on your desk or work space in advance. Set out your notes, your chapter drafts, your fountain pens, reference photos, paper and paints in one convenient place. When you're ready to work, every pen, dictionary, and chocolate bar is there for you, no excuses and no wasted time hunting down your tools.

Tip of the Day: Staying creative every day is really about living creatively every day. Paying extra attention to things we might not regard as inherently "creative" can turn the ho-hum into the spectacular. Choosing to wear our "good clothes" for an ordinary outing; adding extra sparkle and personality to an email; making a gift for a friend; planting a summer garden--it all adds up to a wonderful, and creative, life. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Nearly Forgot: National Poetry Month

Small Fish in a Big World. 
 Ink and gold watercolor, 9" x 12".

Until this morning, I had forgotten that April was National Poetry Month. However, thanks to a tweet I spotted when I turned on my computer first thing, I was suddenly reminded of how much I used to enjoy participating in 30-day April poetry challenges. They were great, creative, fun . . .  I always signed up to take part. Then came 2020 and I got a little, uh, distracted. I didn't even think of poetry, not once.

However, today when I read a tweet from author, poet, and memoirist Diana Raab (@dianaraab, dianaraab.com) suggesting the idea of starting a poem with the words "I don't know" it all came back to me. I wanted to write a poem. I HAD TO WRITE A POEM! It was a dark and rainy day, I had a fresh cup of tea, and more than anything else, I felt as if I sure didn't know very much, hence a poem to find out more:



I do not know why things

are falling apart

faster than a cheap pair of shoes,

or why I no longer want to write,

or why I wake up feeling sick in

the middle of the night.


I guess it turns out I'm tired

(so little sleep!)

and falling apart myself.


Somehow, I think, I must sew the pieces back,

to stitch and try to resurrect, like Isis,

the scattered parts of a body

that has to carry me forward still.

Just breathe, I tell myself, 

just breathe and carry on.

One day we will fall together again,

pieces of a puzzle,

meteors from the sky,

ash that falls like snow.

                                                         * * *

And that's my poem for today. I think I've re-inspired myself enough to not only work on my WIP (don't worry, I still want to write) but also to get back into the poetry habit on a more regular basis. I didn't realize until today how much I've missed it. Although the month is nearly over, there's the entire rest of the year to fill a journal or two. With gel pens!

Tip of the Day: Create your own poetry challenge for any time of the year. Find a theme that fits a particular month or season (summer, weddings, family reunions, autumn leaves) and make a list of 30-31 prompts to help you start each daily session. Collecting magazine cut-outs can be an excellent resource for interesting and unusual ideas. Explore, experiment, and keep in mind there's no such thing as "the right way" to write a poem. Enjoy the journey. Let me know how it goes.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Spring into Spring! Try Something New


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Happy Spring, Everyone! What are you going to do with this happy and colorful season? How about giving yourself the gift of a brand new creative start? For instance:

  • Try writing in a new genre. Although I primarily consider myself a literary author with a background in writing for young readers, I've always wanted to try writing a traditional mystery for grown-ups. With that goal in mind, I've purchased a copy of Hallie Ephron's How to Write and Sell Your Mystery Novel. The book is brimming with dozens of useful exercises designed to cover all aspects of the genre, exactly what I needed to get going. Conversely, if you've written several mysteries already, you might want to try writing a historical romance, or a children's picture book. Spread your wings!
  • Draw or paint in a new medium. (Even one you usually resist.) The key here is to not worry about results and to focus on exploration. If you've only painted with watercolor, try oil paint, charcoal, or melted crayon. Often you can surprise yourself by using untried materials in your own way, rather than "following the directions."
  • Take a Five-day Challenge. Five-day challenges are a great way to start or finish a particular project, especially one that's caused you to stall or procrastinate. Five days may not seem like a lot, but it's astonishing how much you can accomplish if you make the effort to show up every day. So what have you been putting off? Starting your novel? Hemming a quilt? Painting a series of animal portraits? Set aside a dedicated time to work for five days straight and plan to be amazed at your progress.
  • Buy a new journal or sketchbook and use it for a single theme. While it's easy and tempting to use your journal or sketchbook as a catch-all for every fresh idea or observation that pops into your head, it can be far more rewarding to assign one subject per book. Using one sketchbook for drawing faces and hands, and another for ink studies of trees can help eliminate the problem many artists have of wondering "what to draw or paint" every day. It's the same with writing. Having a journal solely for, say, character studies, and another for poetry means you'll be ready to write the minute you sit down at your desk.
  • Choose a subject to research. A good friend of mine has just returned to her home in Mexico from a trip to Guatemala. I'd love to do something similar, but travel's not an option for me right now. However, that doesn't mean I can't go for a little armchair travel with the help of my laptop and local library. One of the subjects I've decided to explore based on my friend's journey is Mayan clothing. I've become captivated with the hand woven and embroidered huipiles that Frida Kahlo so famously wore. After only a few pages of research I'm already inspired to dive into some new sewing, drawing, and painting projects utilizing these wonderful designs. 
  • Write some flash fiction. The beauty of flash fiction is its brevity. Set a timer, set a word length, choose a word prompt, and get ready to write. Although you may want to edit, revise, and polish your work at a later date, the secret to good flash fiction is to immerse yourself in the moment: write as fast as you can in as short a space as you can. Let the words take over. Approach the exercise as a game or challenge rather than a race to perfection.
  • Try virtual school: watch a series of how-to videos and don't forget to do your homework. While my favorites are always the art classes, there is simply no limit to what you can learn online. What's important here, though, is to go beyond being a passive viewer and to put what you've learned into practice before moving on to the next video.
  • Find a discarded manuscript or some old sketchbook pages and rework them. If you're anything like me, you have a cupboard or storage box filled with practice work: sketches and story snippets that may not be your best but certainly helped you reach the skill level you have today. Open the box and see if there's anything you can salvage and re-use. Is there a story you can completely revamp with new characters and settings? Can you draw or paint fresh pictures based on your old sketches? (Bonus tip: Is there anything you can part with and declutter while you're at it?)
  • Write, draw, or paint with an unusual implement. Try writing or drawing with a coffee stirrer, a bamboo stick, a broken twig, a feather, your fingertips. Pencil tip erasers. Your non-dominant hand. Gold ink, tea bags, squashed flower petals. Play with a variety of supports: cardboard, newspaper, an old sheet or a piece of unwanted clothing. Let your creativity flow.
  • Create some found poetry. Found poetry is much more than cutting out groups of eye-catching words and phrases from old books and magazines, or reassembling the entrees listed in a menu to read like a sonnet: it's what you bring to the table as a writer and artist that turns the mundane into a work of art. Rather than transcribing a handful of found words from junk mail and shopping lists onto a blank page, try gluing your finds onto an interesting background, one you've painted, or in the same way as your text, rescued from the trash.
  • Explore nature. There's nothing like being outside to clear the mind and get the ideas rolling. Creative activities can span the range from planting a garden to starting a nature journal. Try sketching or writing outdoors more than you usually do; visit a botanic reserve or park; sew an apron for yard-work. Buy some cheap terra cotta planters and decorate them with paint or collage you varnish onto the surface. Glue on some seashells or glass tiles.
  • Leap out of your comfort zone. Yes, leap! And don't overlook stretching, bending, walking, dancing and moving in any direction you can. One of the greatest dangers of modern creative life is the tendency to sit still for hours and hours at a time while your brain is moving at lightning speed. If you've ever stood up from a lengthy computer session and groaned from the kink in your back, you'll know exactly what I mean. Not only will moving at regular intervals help to improve and maintain your physical health, it's important for your emotional well-being, too. Writers and artists can be hard on themselves and a quick walk around the block has the power to change everything. 

Tip of the Day: Creative exploration should be fun--and easy. If you're a writer who's never picked up so much as a pink pastel, don't pass up an attractive paint-by-number kit or an adult coloring book. It's the same for artists; your local bookstore or library has shelves and shelves of inspiring how-to books for beginners wishing to take their first steps into poetry or memoir. Go for the basics and see what you like. It might be the start of something big!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Achievement and All That Jazz

© dreamstime.com

Dancing on the beach . . . 

I've loved this photograph from the minute I found it. It was just what I was looking for to use in my book trailer for Better Than Perfect, my YA novel set in 1970s New Zealand. The scene made me think of "poised for success," which was exactly how I wanted to portray one of the book's central characters, Ravenna St. James. Ravenna is a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood pushed by her mother and family to achieve more than she is emotionally capable of. Her younger cousin and the first-person narrator of the story, Elizabeth Haddon, is forced to live with Ravenna and her family when her own mother dies. Living in Ravenna's shadow as she sails from one glory to the next, Elizabeth begins to doubt her own self-worth and fears she will never do anything in life to equal or surpass her cousin's many achievements.

Elizabeth has always been one of my favorite characters. Her concerns and struggles to get somewhere in life are feelings I believe we all deal with on one level or another from the day we're born: our first smile, our first words and steps, our first "A" for spelling. Woe betide the child who's running a little behind or to a different drumbeat!

What got me thinking about achievement and its accompanying baggage was reading a tweet (what would I do without Twitter . . . ) about how difficult it was to write an author biography, you know, those paragraphs you're supposed to include with your manuscript submission package along with your synopsis and marketing plan. Personally I hate writing them. All I can ever think of is, I lived here, I lived there, I am boring. When I do take the leap and try to include any accomplishments that might make me sound like a more interesting person, I immediately pull back, thinking: Whoa, stop right there. That's way too braggy, tone it down. And cut out all that arty stuff. Nobody wants to read about your bead making or silver clay experiments. Which then leaves me with: I lived here and there and have a BA. Whoopee!

This isn't the first time I've wondered about what is a real achievement. Last year in particular when we were first getting used to lock downs and the lack of genuine social interaction the subject truly troubled me because 2020 was meant to be The Year of Achievement!  I had made so many plans in the weeks prior to the pandemic to put myself forward, to enter art shows, to sell my jewelry at craft fairs, and of course to market and sell my manuscripts. Then practically overnight all the doors slammed shut. Even my agent couldn't get a single response from the publishers she tried to contact. How could I achieve anything locked in my room? 

The answer was to keep going regardless of circumstance and to create my own definition of achievement. In my journal I wrote: 

Achievement doesn't have to be grand, showy, or seen by the neighbors. Achievement is reaching your own self-created milestones, taking on something you love but that also has degrees of difficulty that require dedication. Achievement is sticking to your plan and seeing it through to the very end.

Following that, I then wrote my steps to get there:

  • Focus, focus, focus. Be still and pinpoint exactly what it is I can do with limited opportunity.
  • Choose one project to work on at a time. Just one, and fall in love with it.
  • Give that project my full attention and effort.
  • Commit to finishing, no matter what.
  • Use and appreciate adversity--find the silver lining. For instance, without my usual daily distractions, classes, and groups I can find loads of extra writing, drawing, and creative time. Seize the day!
  • Use positive affirmations, e.g., "I wake up happy to focus and continue writing my novel."

My list worked. Looking back over 2020 and now into the wide open space of 2021, I feel I achieved quite a lot. And you can too, one small or large action at a time. The main thing to keep in mind is never underestimate your achievements, and never compare them to others. Each achievement is unique and valuable in its own right. Don't fall into the trap of thinking achievement means publishing a best-seller or getting a six-figure publishing deal. These things are only for the moment anyway, wonderful high points good until it's time to repeat them. More often than not the true achievement is having the courage to write, edit, and polish a 300-page manuscript that may never see the light of day but one you're willing to submit 564 times before you call it quits. (But please don't quit.)

Tip of the Day: Whether you're writing an author biography, an artist statement, or just a daily journal entry, a good first step to evaluating your true achievements is to make a list of every past thing you regard as important to you, great and small. Don't censor yourself. Have fun, be braggy, be silly. Now pick the top three that relate best to whatever it is you're drafting and expand on those. I promise you'll be surprised at just how accomplished and fascinating you really are!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

On the Subject of Erasers

© commonstockphotos / dreamstime.com

As much as it would be great to erase 2020, it's a good thing I can't. The year taught me more than I could ever have imagined, and I'm grateful for what I was able to learn and even enjoy during one of the strangest times of my life. And it's not over yet!

2020 makes me think of when I was first learning to draw: it was hard, but I was determined to not give up, even when my art teacher said: "Never use an eraser." Never? Never ever? You're kidding! It sounded horrific, but I was also intrigued and my curiosity impelled me to give it a go.

Coincidentally, it was around this same time that I was reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and her advice on freewriting:  just write, don't think, don't cross out or erase what you've written. Wow; don't erase applied to writing too? 

It does, and I've never looked back. First thoughts and first marks are often our freshest and most honest, especially when we're working on the first draft of anything: a short story idea, the final chapter of a work-in-progress, a sketch of the garden, a journal entry--just write, just draw, and most of all, don't worry. Here's why:

  • When we are learning to write or draw or even plant petunias, yes, we want our work to be "right." And of course it's important to eventually learn correct and pleasing proportions, grammar, and sentence structure, but erasing won't make that happen. Only doing the work will teach you what "right" means and what's right for you. If you think a line in your drawing is crooked or wonky and you really hate it--just draw a new one next to it. Same with your writing. Think you've written a "dumb sentence?" Write another one, one you like better. Keep going. (If you're afraid of wasting paper, try writing or drawing on junk mail, old envelopes, used paper bags, or the backs of manuscript pages. Whatever helps you to practice freely and fearlessly, do it.) 
  • Not using an eraser teaches you to make confident lines. That's why drawing in ink or writing by hand is such a good discipline--it's not so easy to get rid of what you think you don't like. And who knows? You might love what you've drawn or written the next time you review it. How terrible it would be lose what might be the best of the entire piece.
  •  Abandoning erasers can lead to developing your own style more quickly, especially with drawing. Keep in mind that a "perfect" drawing is often a boring drawing, one that could be made by any old "Anonymous." (Ditto for many a book.)
  • At this point you might be asking, what about erasing the guidelines on a drawing that are the basis or outlines for a painting? Well, if you've got that far, congratulations! Leaving, or erasing, your pencil outlines is entirely up to you, but personally I love seeing pencil lines in a painting. Not only do they add, in my opinion, a lot of extra energy and charm to the finished work, but they help me to see what the artist was thinking and what his or her process was to develop the piece.
  • Finally, not using an eraser can turn your drawing or writing practice sessions into memorable creative outings. Standard challenges such as "write for twenty minutes without stopping," or "draw an object or a skyline without lifting your pencil or pen," are far more authentic when you don't erase. Gesture drawing in particular is a wonderful exercise that encourages you to draw from the heart without concern for results. (You can read more about gesture drawing in my recent post on the topic here.)

If it sounds as if I'm totally against erasers, believe me, I'm not. Revision work is an entire art in itself, and that's when it's the appropriate time to examine what material to leave in and what to leave out. For artists, erasers in all their many forms are amazing tools for purposefully removing areas of graphite or charcoal to create highlights and white lines such as whiskers on a cat, or veins on a leaf. As for writers, pushing the "delete" button is invaluable when you've given your main character at least three different names and changed your setting midway from Ohio to France without realizing it. The secret is knowing when and why to use your eraser, and always with a light touch. Moderation in all things!

Tip of the Day: Here's a nifty trick for those unused erasers: try making rubber stamps. Whether you use the kind on the end of a pencil or those larger pink rectangles you remember from school, you can easily cut and carve your own design(s) with the aid of an craft knife. Tap the finished stamp into ink or paint to create plenty of new lockdown fun. (Note: Please be very, very careful--those blades are sharp! The Voice of Experience.) See you next time.