Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dear Editor; the Tao of Manuscript Submission 2015


Somewhere around mid-December a word will pop into my head that symbolizes the year ahead for me. December 2013 brought me the word "Completion." It was a good word for 2014, encouraging me to finish, polish, and prepare my novel The Abyssal Plain for 2015 submission. The year before that, the word was "Focus," another good direction that brought me to where I am today. 

This year, for some mysterious reason, my word is "Tao" as in Taoism. At first I thought it had something to do with my upcoming trip to Taiwan, but then I thought it might be connected to my current art project of sketching and painting doors, i.e., Tao being related to "the way," or "the door." Whatever the reason for it coming into my life, I like it. 

To me, the Tao means "go with the flow," a much-needed quality as I begin submitting my manuscript. It's a scary process and I need all the help I can get, from chanting "nerves of steel" as I seal up my envelopes, to occupying my waiting time with revising and polishing yet another WIP.

This morning as part of my daily morning pages routine I brainstormed some of the ways using a Taoist approach could help me get through my submission angst. My biggest fear is getting to the post office and then tearing open the envelopes because I'm certain I've "done it wrong" and have to check everything one more time. After all, submission holds so much baggage: fear of rejection, bending one's will to another, even the idea of "breaking your spirit" altogether. Except, according to my brainstorming, it doesn't have to be any of those things. Rather than believing that submission is about being meek, mild, and a total  doormat, it's about saying "Yes!" with total confidence. It's about believing that:
  1. Yes, my work is finished to the best of my current ability.
  2. Yes, my work is sale-worthy. If I were a publisher, I would pay to have it published.
  3. And, yes, I can let this piece go because I have many, many more books and stories to write and prepare for publication. So, let it go!
It's a whole new publishing world out there, with new editors, agents, and publishing houses. As modern writers and authors, we really do have a myriad of fresh opportunities at our fingertips, e.g., e-books, serialized novels, on-demand printing, audio-books. The idea of allowing the Tao to support and maintain our submission efforts is an attractive one, helping me to remain (relatively) calm and centered, the very best way, I would think to approach any task, starting with writing those manuscripts in the first place!

Tip of the Day: Okay, so what if a manuscript submission really does "go wrong"? It happens: a typo in the cover letter, addressing an editor who left the house long ago, sending the manuscript to the wrong department, a confusing pitch. Believe me, I've been there, and more than once. But none of these things are worth agonizing over. A mistake is a chance to learn and get it right next time. Do your best to move on and . . .  let it go . . .

P.S. Over the next few months I'll be examining and reporting on my experiences of working with the Tao as a writer and artist. Stay tuned--and be sure to drop me a line if you have any questions or thoughts to share on the subject. Thanks!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

New Year, New Goals


Here we are—a new year, a clean slate, all kinds of good things on the horizon! I have so many plans and ideas, but as I mentioned in my last post I want to pace myself a little better this year, and keep my goal list down to just three items. Over the weekend I had some time to sit down and make some decisions about what those three goals would be. In no particular order, the winners are: 

1. Edit and rewrite my next novel. As soon as my synopsis and outline for The Abyssal Plain--the literary novel I finished last year--are ready for submission (hopefully by the end of the month) I want to start working on book #10: Ghazal.  Last fall I re-read the first draft for the first time in a year, and was happy to discover that most of the editing will simply be improving some of my word choices (stronger verbs, etc.), cleaning up typos, and adding a small amount of text to help clarify the plot.

2. Work on a long-term art project. Prior to this year, the best word to describe my approach to art-making would be “scattered.” “Unfocused” might work even better. My haphazard style (aka "dabbling") is the result of loving absolutely every art material and technique I can get my hands on: collage, watercolors, acrylic, clay, every type of pencil or crayon or pastel imaginable that I then use on so many different types of papers, boards, and fabric supports that I could probably write a comprehensive thesis on the subject. 

What I haven’t done is follow any kind of serious idea or direction. I like painting cats, dogs, landscapes, faces, flowers, trees, ferrets, even my art supplies when I'm desperate—but none of it really makes for a coherent body of work. Although I never want to box myself in to the point that I give up drawing ferrets, I still want to find some kind of artistic voice this year. In other words, I want to create a series. And the strongest subject that is calling to me right now is: doorways. Using a variety of mediums and supports, I want to explore open doorways, closed doors, antique doors, doors decorated for the seasons, doors in foreign lands and climates. The concept of doors (and the houses they belong to) is so rich in metaphor and possibility that it will be a challenge to know when to stop!

3. Sketch as much as possible, and add freewriting to my drawings. Despite my concentration on doorways, I still want to keep up a sketching habit, hopefully with even more vigor than in previous years. After all, a series of doors all on their own can get a little stale. For that reason, each door will need it’s own personality: a kitty on the stair, a container of roses under the streetlight, a basket of freshly-picked tomatoes. To do that with any kind of finesse, I’ll need to practice. And to make sure I get in my daily writing practice, I plan to add freewriting to my sketches. 

I can’t tell you how energized I am about these goals and plans. The best part is I don’t need any new supplies, LOL! Just the faith and confidence to say “yes” to every new drawing, every new page.


Tip of the Day: Never underestimate the power of brainstorming. To make my list of three goals I actually had to brainstorm a list of about twenty. There was a lot I wanted to do—way too much and much more than anyone could handle with any kind of joy or enthusiasm. But I couldn’t have found the three that really appealed to me without writing it all down first.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Wishing You a Wonderful New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2015 be a fantastic and inspired year for all of us. This morning I woke up to snow, a beautiful and refreshing sight, especially on a day off. The "blank slate" symbolism of seeing vast fields of white outside my windows has also been the perfect backdrop for reviewing the past year as I gear up to experience the new. Some of my 2014 highlights included:
  1. After a long absence, I rejoined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This time I enrolled myself as both a writer and as an illustrator, a rather bold step, but one that has opened many new possibilities for the future.
  2. I must have been in the mood to join groups, because I also became a member of the Colored Pencil Society of America.
  3. April found me blogging every day for the 2014 April blog challenge. A fun exercise, but it also taught me how hard it is to be a "daily blogger."
  4. I moved into a new house! We're still in the middle of remodelling, but every day we get a little bit closer to being "finished" (whatever that means . . .).
  5. Following through with my goal of illustrating, I took a fantastic summer class on "Drawing Cats and Dogs." I learned so many valuable tips, especially on the importance of keeping a reference notebook I can take with me wherever I go (no excuses not to draw).
  6. October found me at the SCBWI Albuquerque conference,  having a grand time meeting editors and fellow writers.
  7. Which then prompted me to write my first picture book for submission--a task I'll be starting this month.
  8. For some crazy reason I signed up for NaNoWriMo again, and actually reached 50K!
  9. At long last I obtained jewelry tools and supplies and can now officially call myself a "beader." 
  10. I started taking a Saturday morning drawing class--which means I have to get up on Saturday mornings (brrrr.) But I love the weekly discipline of joining other artists and focusing on a set project.
  11. My writer's group continued to meet regularly and happily at our new home: the Albuquerque Museum. What a treat it is to go there for writing, friendship, and coffee every other week!
  12. I finished all my edits on my new novel, The Abyssal Plain, preparing it for 2015 submission. Whew.
Reading through this list makes me both happy and already a little nostalgic. The year was imbued with such a sense of new beginnings and creative purpose. I have yet to set my goals and plans for 2015, but they're something I'll be working on this afternoon. As soon as I narrow them down to a do-able list, I'll be sure to let you know. Thanks again for visiting--Happy New Year!

Tip of the Day: New Year's Day is such a great time to make notes and road-maps for the days ahead. Several years ago I decided to turn the whole idea of  "New Year's resolutions" into one that's more about goal-setting rather than being overly-strict (and restrictive) with myself. This year I'm going to limit myself to just three goals--anything else after that can happen, or not, depending on my time, energy, and circumstances. With that I'm inviting you to join me--what are your three goals for 2015? Feel free to list them under the "comments' section. And have a cup of cocoa while you're there--that's what I'll be doing.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Happy Boxing (and Beading) Day!

Vintage Czech crystal beads, freshwater pearls, 
silver rosettes.
Season's Greetings, everyone--and Happy Boxing Day, aka as the day after Christmas, a holiday I grew to love while I was living in New Zealand and the UK. If anyone is confused about the term "boxing" let me assure you it has nothing to do with Queen's Rules and fisticuffs, but rather it's a traditional day to give a "box" of gifts or cash to the people who help us throughout the year, the people who make our lives that little bit easier. Think Downton's Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs. Although we technically don't celebrate the day here in the US, it's still a great way to say "thank you" to co-workers, charities, or the service industries we rely upon.

For me, it's also a day off, one I'm using to play with my Christmas presents which this year were all about: beading! Tools, supplies, free rein at the bead store . . . I'm having more fun than a kid with a new coloring book. My interest in beads and bling began three years ago with the beading class I took from Continuing Ed. Before that I couldn't have told you the difference between an awl and a crimper, but now I've even got my own pair of diagonal wire cutters and I'm not afraid to use 'em. Watch out, craft shows.

Starting the minute I got my hands on my chain nose pliers, I got down to business. Shown here (above and below) are my first efforts of the day, necklaces I made in between serious holiday cake-eating and movie-watching. (My kind of hobby, I can tell you.)

Recycled: glass beads with gold accents.
More reasons I love beading:

  • Instant gratification. What a change from writing or drawing, LOL!
  • Good excuse for an artist's date: bead stores, hobby stores, thrift stores (yes, thrift stores--some of the best places on the planet to find vintage and unusual beads, pendants, and clasps).
  • New jewelry! For me, my friends--even for sale!
  • It's something I can do while watching TV or listening to the radio. I get antsy just sitting around.
  • It's a good way to experiment with color palettes and combinations for visual art work.
  • Working with my hands seems to help me think of character, plot, setting . . . all the necessaries for writing.
  • I could even add a few chosen pieces to my main character's wardrobe. How fun is that?
  • Designing the strands and placing the beads in various combinations on the bead board is ultra-calming and stress-reducing. It's so peaceful.
  • It's a great jump-starter for lagging imagination. Just like working with found poetry or pottery, each piece can be based on a randomly chosen theme or title.
  • It's a quick fill-in for the days when my energy levels are low yet I still want to do something fun and creative.
  • The possibilities are endless: so many beads. SO MANY BEADS! 
  • And when I get bored with a piece, I can cut the cord and start all over--recycling it into new designs and patterns. 

I think this is going to be a very restful and meditative hobby for the New Year, something I'm going to need with all my plans to start submitting manuscripts next month. Until then, though, I think it's time for another piece of cake. 

Tip of the Day: Is there some creative pursuit you've put on hold for a while, waiting for the "perfect" time to start? How about starting right now by making a list of dreams and intentions? Choose one item on the list--just one--and gather whatever supplies, books, or information you need to make your dream a reality. (Hint: Youtube.com is an excellent place to find free classes and demonstrations on just about any subject you have in mind.). Plan to start working on your new project on January 1, 2015 and make it a daily or weekly habit. Good luck, enjoy the season, and remember to think outside of the box!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Remembering Artist Gary R Sanchez

Morning Coffee; Oil Pastel and Watercolor Crayon on Gessoed Paper

I'm feeling sad today. Two nights ago I learned that one of my continuing ed. art teachers, Gary Sanchez, passed away suddenly on Thanksgiving from a heart attack. It's hard to believe--I was just about to choose which of his classes I was going to take next year. He was only 53. Kind, generous, and a remarkably gifted teacher; he will be sorely missed by so many.

I took both watercolor and oil pastel classes from Gary. Watercolor was not a new medium to me, but oil pastel certainly was. In fact, I wasn't even sure I would like it very much--I only took the class because I knew he was a good teacher and I thought I should expand my horizons. What I didn't expect is that I would enjoy oil pastel so much it would become one of my main drawing/painting mediums. 

The above painting was one of my first homework assignments in that same class. Looking at it now I'm reminded of the fun our class had together, and Gary was funny, constantly keeping us entertained. I realize now that was a great way to keep us relaxed and light: we would sketch while Gary chatted, worked on his own pictures, and somehow managed to walk around the room giving us individual pep talks all at the same time. I can still hear him using the terms "hot dog"and "hamburger" in place of "portrait" and "landscape" to describe which way we should turn our paper (the same way he described it for the children's classes he taught, which of course was the perfect way for me to learn), or reminding us that Van Gogh ate his paints--a demonstration of how passionate we should be about our materials! (Or hungry.) Gary's website is still up and I encourage you to visit while it's there: Garyrsanchez.com

Some of the reasons Gary helped me to love oil pastels include:
  • There are no limits: I can use my fingers to paint. I'm also a ceramic artist, and being able to use my hands and fingers as tools on the paper fits me to a T.
  • Oil pastel color is rich. The colors blend like butter.
  • You can use a wide variety of interesting backgrounds, from sand paper to canvas, so it never gets dull.
  • It's a fast medium with quick results--and I'm a very impatient artist.
  • Oil pastels are a good choice for creating sell-able, frame-able work. And who doesn't want to go professional one day?
  • You don't need a lot of excess "stuff" to work with oil pastel--especially if you paint with your fingers! But seriously, they are a minimalist's dream: a selection of colors, something to draw upon, a few paper towels.
  • And you don't need to break the bank to get started. Even a cheap set is good--much better than you'd think. Great for the budget-minded.
  • It's a a very expressive medium--you can draw straight from the heart, right away--no experience needed. Really.
  • It's also a very forgiving medium--if you don't like the results you can pretty much just scrape it away and start over. Better yet, you can look for "happy accidents" and work with those in new and creative ways. It all turns out fine.
  • Oil pastels can be used in so many different ways: on their own, in collage or mixed media, applied thick and strong, or thinned with either water or solvent for a "watercolor" look. The possibilities are endless.
Going over this list makes me want to get out my paper and Sennelier pastels (the terribly expensive ones!) and draw something special. I often think the very best way we can honor our teachers and mentors, past and present, is to never give up on our dreams, no matter what. I'm so glad I got to be one of Gary's students, and I'm so glad I let him know when I could how much I appreciated his art and teaching. May his legacy live on.

Tip of the Day: My art journals are full of Gary's advice and tips, but one of my favorites is from the first watercolor class I took from him. We were each given a picture of a sunflower to paint. When we were finished (and praised--Gary always made sure we got tons of positive feedback before he offered any other type of critique) he said, "Okay, now that you've painted one sunflower, don't stop. Never paint just one. Paint a hundred. Paint a thousand sunflowers. Become an expert!" It's good advice for any type of creative pursuit: e.g., don't just write one poem or screenplay, write a hundred, write a thousand! Become an expert--and never give up. See you next time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My NaNoWriMo Must-Have List


Here we are--the last few days of NaNoWriMo: time to face the music, finish or else, or maybe just be Thanksgiving-Thankful for whatever words we did manage to get on paper. I've still got a few thousand words to go before Sunday, but I'll get there (I can! I can!).

One of the ways I've kept myself energized these last weeks has been by ensuring I always have ready access to my favorite writing "must-have's." These include:
  1. Fountain Pen. I couldn't write (or live) without a great fountain pen. Over the years I've gone through all different sorts, from disposable (a mistake I won't repeat) to pricey and too precious to use (another bad idea). Right now I'm very comfortable with a black-barreled Retro 1951 Tornado model. It's a good weight and size for my hand and so far (about a year) has been problem-free, i.e. no ink leakage, etc.
  2. Colorful ink. This month I'm alternating between autumn shades of  violet and ebony brown.
  3. Uniball BLX gel pens. A great back-up to my fountain pen. I always keep a few of these gems in my purse, on my desk, clipped to my manuscript . . . I love them. The secret is the ink: the usual blue, violet, brown, etc. is infused with black, giving the various colors a mysterious, gothic appearance that fits my storyline perfectly.
  4. White legal pads. I can't get enough of these. I admit to stockpiling them in the dozens, just in case, you know, Office Max closes or it's the end of the world or something . . .
  5. Alphasmart. My trusty little portable word processor. Oh, how I love my Alphasmart!
  6. Plot Journal. Every manuscript I work on has an accompanying journal filled with notes, character sketches, and plot-lines all based on my:
  7. Magazine cut-outs. I don't think I could write without my very extensive visual references. The weirder, more obscure the photo, the happier I am. I keep my cut-outs in plastic sleeves inside my journals and play with them like paper dolls whenever I need some extra inspiration.
  8. A Writer's Book of Days, by Judy Reeves. This is my favorite book of writing prompts. There's a prompt for each day of the year plus a few extras tacked on to the end of each month just for fun. The prompts can be used over and over and over and never become stale. The book also has tons of super writing advice.
  9. The Voice of the Muse, by Mark David Gerson. I bought this book over the summer and saved it especially for NaNoWriMo. I'm so glad I did. I like to read a paragraph or two before starting my day's work and the message stays with me every step of the way. Reading it before my writing sessions gives me a gentle reminder to trust, to breathe, to stay grateful for the process, and enjoy my writing without judgment.
  10. Padfolio. Another new addition to my writing life. I bought this as a reward for exceeding my daily word goal last week. It's red and shiny and makes me feel very productive. It's the perfect way to carry around my beloved legal pads. Not sure how I ever managed without one.
  11. Salty snacks. I like to eat while I write--which can be a very bad habit. This year I've discovered popcorn chips--virtually calorie-free, with just enough snap, crackle, and pop to make me feel like I'm getting a real treat. They also keep me from roaming the kitchen in search of more food and distraction.
  12. Cuppa. Lattes when I'm at a bookstore cafe, Earl Grey or Jasmine Green tea when I'm at home or in my office. In fact, I could use one right now. Catch you later!
Tip of the Day: Writing can be a lonely, frustrating process, one that can make you wish you were anywhere but plonked in front of your laptop or Alphasmart. So why not make it fun with small (or big) rewards? Start planning today what you're going to give yourself for finishing NaNoWriMo '14 or any other creative project completed by the end of the year. After all, you deserve it! Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014, SCBWI Conference, and Me

Balancing Act, Pastel Pencil on Toned Paper;
Hello, Everyone! Happy NaNoWriMo! Hope those word counts are adding up and that you are finding plenty to write about. This year, thanks to a busy day-job and starting a new drawing class on Saturday mornings (sample above), I decided to go slow and steady, sticking to around 2000 words a day, with no weekend marathons. A more-sane approach is helping me to stay calm and positive about the process, and so far I haven't reached any dead-ends or resistance to my story (yet, LOL!). In other words, I'm hanging in there.

The other good thing I'm loving about this year's NaNoWriMo is that it's giving me a solid month of quiet focus to a) recover from finishing my WIP, The Abyssal Plain, and b) gather my strength to market the book, and c) contemplate everything I learned at the SCBWI Handsprings 2014 Conference here in Albuquerque at the end of October. 

I haven't written a book for young readers for several years, and it's a field I've been missing, especially as I've had an idea for a picture book rattling around in my head for the last eighteen months. So I could hardly pass up a conference so close to home I even went home for an hour to eat my lunch.

The Friday night and all-day Saturday event featured a fantastic line-up of guest speakers and workshop leaders: Julie Ham Bliven, editor from Charlesbridge; Liz Baker and Patti Ann Harris, editor and art director from Scholastic; and agent Sara Megibow. We also had the excellent input of our local members adding their experience and wisdom to the mix, and I came away with pages and pages of notes and good advice.

Some of my favorites:
  • Children's books are big again (yay!). As in REALLY big. If you've ever wanted to write a book for younger readers, this is the time to make that dream a reality.
  • When you go to write, however, don't just fall back on the books you enjoyed reading as a child. Take yourself to the library, the bookstore, and read online publishing lists and catalogs. In other words, research. Study what kinds of books are being published today. You might be surprised at how different they are . . .
  • . . . as well as being very close to what you loved, too. One of these similarities revolves around the idea of "perennial themes"; subjects that will always be popular, especially in picture books, e.g. bedtime, new sibling, holidays, counting and alphabet books. Study modern approaches to these themes and see how you can add your own personal twist.
  • Look for creative ways to layer those themes: e.g., can a bedtime book also be a counting book? (One little lamb put on his pajamas, two little lambs turned out the lights . . . )
  • Don't be afraid to explore the "dark side" of your theme/subject. Children need to express and explore negative feelings in a safe and open way.
  • Titles are super-important. In fact, they are so important they can determine where your book will be placed in the bookstore!
  • This is because many children's books buyers rarely remember the name of the writer or the illustrator (Sad, I know.) But book buyers do remember titles like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.
  • If you're writing a picture book, make a "dummy" to ensure that your words and line breaks flow from page to page. (Easy dummy method: take 8 pieces of paper; fold them in half for a standard 32-page book that includes title and copyright pages.)
  • Picture book writers: Always think of your illustrator, even when you have no idea who that will be. Make sure your words inspire LOTS of pictures. There's nothing worse than having an illustrator receive your manuscript and say, "I don't know what to draw."
  • Editors can be open to a "reasonable" amount of art notes included with your text, so don't be too inhibited with your suggestions for pictures or a particular style of art.
  • Nonfiction writers: editors are looking for NF that reads like fiction. This goes for all age groups; picture books, too.
  • Books DO come from the slush pile. Keep submitting, don't give up.
  • Editors and agents take your membership in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators very seriously--so if you haven't signed up, think about joining.
  • Read. Read. READ.
  • Books in verse for all age groups do well. Rhyming isn't as taboo as you might think. Just be sure to rhyme well.
Yes, I was inspired! The week before the conference I wrote a very rough draft of my picture book manuscript, and have since cut it up and laid it out line-by-line in dummy format. Currently it's "resting" in its own lovely folder, ready for rewriting as soon as NaNoWriMo is finished. And you know what? I'm actually looking forward to revisions--630 words is a whole lot better than 50K.

Tip of the Day: Joining a professional writer's organization, even if you have never been published, is one of the best ways I know to gain both confidence and inside information. If you're interested in writing for a younger audience, consider joining the SCBWI--the networking is excellent, and the constantly-updated marketing and publishing information they provide is invaluable.