Friday, February 20, 2015

Happy 20th Birthday to The Essential Guide for New Writers!

February 2015 marks the 20th Anniversary of 
20 Years!! 

I'm so proud of this book--a true case of "the little engine that could"; a book originally written for my fledgling creative writing classes way back in Carrollton, Georgia, yet has continued to sell year after year, month after month. 

The Essential Guide has been used in so many places: prison creative writing programs, university MFA programs, homeschool seminars, and in such a variety of writers' groups it's mind-boggling: from New Zealand to India to California and back, The Essential Guide has accomplished everything I ever wanted for it. Thank you to all those who have purchased the book (and thank you for the fan mail), and welcome new readers if you're investigating the pages for the first time!

Basically the book is a streamlined "how to" manual designed to establish and maintain your everyday writing habits. It cuts right to the essence of what makes a good story, listing the main building blocks all publishable writing, both fiction and nonfiction, should include. 

Some of the things you'll find inside:
  • Getting your ideas right where you want them--on paper.
  • What editors are looking for, and how to get the to look at you.
  • Creative conflict--the driving force behind character, goal, and plot.
  • Narrative hooks--grab your reader and don't let go.
  • Setting and dialogue: "I really felt I was there!"
  • Turning your ides into scenes, and your scenes into fully finished manuscripts.
  • Desire, visualization, and commitment--the three key ingredients to selling your work.
  • Writing the right query letter and book proposal.
Writing exercises at the end of every chapter, too! Take a peek at the trailer:

Wow. It's been a journey, friends. May the next 20 years be just as exciting, or more!

Tip of the Day: To celebrate The Essential Guide's birthday, I'm having a special price at my website--just $5.95 from now until March 20, 2015. The price includes free domestic shipping to anywhere within the USA. You can't go wrong--get your copy today!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Trust Your Manuscript; Trust Yourself

Several years ago when I started this blog, one of the early posts I wrote was titled It's All About Trust. This morning I woke up realizing it still is--creative work really is all about trusting your gut, your instincts, your ability, and especially the work itself.

For the last twelve months I've been avidly editing and preparing my new novel The Abyssal Plain for submission. I'm now in the beginning of those first submissions and initial contacts. There's just been one problem: an irritating, exasperating, and very worrisome question I've had about one of the manuscript's plot points. Midway in the story, one of my female characters suddenly becomes antagonistic toward one of the male characters. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out why, but it seemed the natural way for the narrative to go, so I let it ride. 

That said, I didn't really like the way I left this thing dangling. I couldn't understand why my character became mean, then meaner, then almost unbearable in her hostility toward this other character. I tried to blame it on her moodiness, but that just seemed so unfair to her as well as the poor male character who had to bear the brunt of her anger. Oh, well, I thought. No one will notice (fingers crossed). Keep calm and submit the manuscript anyway. An answer will come. Strangely enough, it did!

This morning I woke up with the answer so loud and clear it made me not only laugh in sheer relief, but sent me running to my office to write down what is basically a small paragraph of insight and explanation that clarifies everything. How, I kept asking myself as I scribbled away, could I not see what the conflict was? After all, it was right there in the manuscript waiting to be seized and expanded upon.

In other words, I'd already done the groundwork, I was just too caught up in other manuscript concerns to see or appreciate it. Thank goodness for my subconscious. Thank goodness for sleep. Because all I had to do was be present, agree to work on the manuscript no matter what, and believe an answer would appear, which it did--in glowing (and logical) technicolor. Having this answer appear at this exact moment has changed my entire attitude toward both the manuscript and submitting it. Let's just call it "increased confidence." Whew.

A few of the things I've learned from this experience are:

  • Whenever you're stuck on a plot-glitch or other irritating problem, just keep working past whatever it is. Don't stop and don't give up. Keep moving forward!
  • Learn to be comfortable with mystery. If the answer doesn't appear right away, or even a few months later--trust that it will, somehow, somewhere. You may have to wait for some outside help, such as a critique partner or an editor asking, "What does this mean?" Or, "Why is this event happening?" But that could be the perfect time to receive your best and most true answer. 
  • Don't be afraid of the extra work weaving your answer into the manuscript may entail. In my case it's just going to take a new paragraph or two, and then some additional dialogue lines and tags. But it also means changing my pagination, printing out new manuscript copy, fresh proofreading, etc. And that's okay--this new info helps my story to make sense and will encourage a reader to keep reading without having to stop and figure out what's going on. (And then forget all about reading my story while they pick up something more coherent to read.)
The next time you're stuck in a manuscript, or any other type of creative endeavor--artwork, beading, house-renovating included--concentrate on trust rather than worry. You'll find a way. I can trust it.

Tip of the Day: "Sleeping on a problem" really does work! I might not have been thoroughly aware of how much I wanted an answer to my manuscript question, but it must have been in my psyche somewhere, ready to appear. 

One good tip I'm reminded of is to write down any question you might have about any life situation, creative or otherwise, and put it under your pillow. Then forget all about it. People who've tried this tell me they wake up with the answer as vividly as I did today. How about you? Any tips on the subject to share? Let me know! Happy dreaming/problem-solving.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

My Altered Book, Post-NaNoWriMo

Four Girls and Six Colleges; Altered Book Page

Sometimes I just like to write a book for fun, and usually it's for NaNoWriMo (aka National Novel Writing Month). No big deal, no serious thought of publication, but worth it's weight in writing practice and who knows? Maybe there are some characters, scenes, or settings that will be used one day--maybe even the majority of what I wrote. But while I'm at work on these "just for fun" books, I don't like to think about anything as daunting or real as editing, commonsense, or marketing. Instead, I just freewrite every wild and crazy thing that comes into my head and let the plot chips fall where they may.

For the last three NaNoWriMo years, three of these "for fun"manuscripts have turned into a  connected series, all based on the altered book project I started four (!) years ago and that I titled, Four Girls and Six Colleges. The title is derived from the actual book I'm altering, a collection of architectural drawings of six historic Australian college campuses. The four girls (featured above) who became the main characters of both the altered book and the 2012 NaNoWriMo manuscript, were amongst the first photos I pasted into the book. I was so intrigued with their stories that for NaNoWriMo 2013 I wrote Six Girls and Four Colleges (about their daughters), followed by last year's effort, Homecoming which featured their granddaughters.

But now that the manuscripts have been written and put away for a rainy day, it's time to get back to my original inspiration, the altered book itself. One of the reasons I'm still working on it is because when I embarked on the project I didn't realize that most people gesso or glue together several pages of their chosen book to make very thick single pages. After that it's fairly simple to collage, paint or enhance the resulting 12 or so backgrounds. In my case, however, I thought you were supposed to work on EVERY page--as in all 96 of them, back and front.

So here I am, several years later, still slogging away with the watercolor crayons and glue sticks. Some of the pages are pretty complete, maybe even finished; others have a long way to go. The good news is none of them are blank, as in, white-page-staring-me-in-the-face. Take a peek:

There are many, many more pages, LOL, but as they say, that's all for now, folks! Hope you enjoyed the show! As for me, it's back to the crayons and glue sticks. Sigh.

Tip of the Day: When's the last time you wrote or made something "just for fun"? If it's been a while, brainstorm a list of projects you'd love to try no matter the outcome. Pick one and start playing today! (P.S. Keep in mind that this is all about the sheer pleasure of personal creativity--you may want to take a page from my own experience and go for quick-and-easy rather than " 'till death do us part.")

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: 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!