Thursday, February 8, 2018

February Check-in: Revisions


Happy February!  It's the start of revision time for me, taking last year’s edits on my current work-in-progress novel, Ghazal, and putting them into action. According to my notes, there's a lot to do, but I'm more than ready to get the show on the road.

For those of you new to this project, the plot of Ghazal centers on thirty doorways that individually figure in each chapter, and two relationships between two couples. The first couple is comprised of a married, middle-aged businessman and a young woman who has recently abandoned her choice to live in a convent. The second couple is made up of the young woman’s next door neighbors during her growing-up years, two retirees who once spent a magical summer in France and have never forgotten. Together and separately the characters discover what it is they truly believe in, discarding along the way the many lies they have told themselves and each other for decades. 

While the plot is continuous and involves the same group of characters, the chapters can also be read as stand-alone short stories. I realize it's experimental, unconventional, and all of the worst things an editor or agent wants to hear, but it's the direction I'm the most drawn toward. Writing about my characters' lives and decisions in the form of short stories has allowed me the freedom to explore areas and themes that might not work in a traditional novel. For instance, one chapter is about a high school ski trip gone wrong; another is about seeing the Alamo at midnight as a child; while yet another is about the sudden death of a friend in a swimming pool. At first glance these events might not have much to do with each other, but taken as a whole, they can be considered as beads on a cord that eventually ties together in just the right way. 

My self-imposed deadline is to have the manuscript ready for submission by the end of the year, a much wider frame than I'd originally wanted, but I want to fully craft this novel; hasty decisions and speed-revising won't work this time around. I'll be thrilled if I do finish before then, but I want to stay as mindful and focused as I can on this project and not feel pressured to get it over and done with.
 
One of the things I'm doing to make the revising more interesting is I'm drawing illustrations of the thirty doorways I mentioned earlier. I’m still undecided on my final medium, style, and color palette (or if I'll even use color at all), but that's half the fun. Another trick I’m using is to keep a daily “writer’s log," tracking not only my daily progress, but also my thoughts and emotions about the entire revision process. Alongside these are my notes on what I hope to achieve within each chapter as well as a record of my characters' names, ages, backgrounds, and anything else that I need to refer to as I continue to re-write.

As much as I love freewriting and getting that first draft down on paper, I must say there's really nothing better than having those pages finally assembled into a revisable manuscript. At least you know you do have something to work on and improve. The only hard part after that is knowing when to stop polishing, tinkering, and changing every other word so you can finally declare: The End!

Tip of the Day: If you haven’t tried keeping a daily log of your writing or other creative projects, you might like to start one now. One easy method is to use a calendar (especially now that all the 2018 ones are on super-sale!) and write down your word count or similar into each date square. Many calendars have room to write extra notes for the month too, and you can always write on the picture page as well.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

January De-Clutter


January is a great time for "out with the old, in with the new," something I've been attending to with vim and vigor this past weekend. For the first time in years, I decided to not save any leftover holiday wrapping, gift bags, ribbons and bows which then encouraged me to scour through the house to see what else could be tossed or recycled. It was amazing what I found, especially when I consider myself to be an expert minimalist! Some of my top get-rid-ofs included:
  • Books. For the last couple of years I've held the rule that for every new book I buy, an old one has to go. This has been an excellent practice forcing me to use the library more, read used books I find on giveaway piles, and curb a life-long habit of buying books because they're for sale. But this weekend I went way beyond a single book or two. I got rid of dozens of titles I won't be reading again for pleasure or using for reference. It was wrenching, but, oh, those shelves look good.
  • Gift wrap and more. Besides getting rid of the 2017 Christmas wrapping and bags, I cleared out all those other types of gift bags I'd kept for sentimental reasons or that I'd intended to use "one day." The thing is, one day never came, or at least not the day when I wanted to put a gift in a bag from a store that the gift couldn't possibly have come from. The same with leftover Christmas cards from several years ago, as well as worn-out holiday decorations. All gone.
  • Clothing. If I haven't worn something for a few years, chances are I never will again. And thanks to our unseasonably warm Albuquerque weather this winter, I was able to clear out several bulky and not-so-favorite items I'd been hanging onto just in case the next Ice Age arrived overnight. And if some freak mega-blizzard does arrive in the coming months, I can always layer with what I decided to keep.
  • White elephant gifts. My writer's group used to swap unwanted, unneeded, or duplicated items at our annual holiday party until we eventually ran out of things to share. However that was several years ago and in the interim I've somehow managed to collect some more. I think (I know) I'd been storing these things out of sheer guilt: (It was a present!). Not this year. Off to the thrift store they went.
  • Art supplies. I love to experiment with new supplies, but more than once I've had to learn the hard way that new doesn't mean it's for me. Which is fine--my local recreation center loves donations. Giving away several sets of unloved pencils, pastels, and brushes will help someone else discover their true artistic self this year. A real win-win for everyone.
  • Old art work. My biggest weakness. You'd think parting with failed paintings and drawings would be easy, but for me it's like getting rid of my soul. I painted that! It took me hours to get it all wrong! My current compromise has been to save my entire collection of sketchbooks (I will NEVER part with those), but I decided to get ruthless with everything that was truly for practice or not very skillful. What didn't go into the trash I tore and/or cut into small pieces for collage and art journaling.
  • Old manuscripts. This task is still a work-in-progress, but I'm going through all the freewriting stories that I wrote for . . . freewriting . . . and will never even attempt to publish. The ones that I like I'm transcribing onto a flash drive. The ones that I don't, out they go with the not-so-great artwork. I'm doing the same with old drafts of projects that are now in the final draft stage. I don't need physical copies of the originals and in many instances I don't need digital copies either. Delete, delete, delete!
  • Bills and paperwork. I like having only one filing cabinet and I like keeping it neatly labelled, uncluttered, and easy to close. I only file copies of household bills for a year, tax materials for five, and after that, off to the shredder I go.
  • Stuff. This seemed to be the most esoteric of my categories and also the most ridiculous. Included in what I managed to sort through and toss were keys that opened locks that no longer existed, a 20-year-old pair of glasses and their broken case, and a ceramic bear without a front leg. Several more items were so peculiar I couldn't even recognize what their original purpose had been, e.g., a strip of blue plastic. What was it? Where did it come from? Why was I keeping it?
De-cluttering always makes me feel good. The challenge, however, is not allowing the clutter and excess to accumulate in the first place. With that in mind I'm hoping to approach this new year with a firm refusal to allow unwanted belongings enter my life at all. The stores won't be happy, but I'm looking forward to a year of Zen-like shelves and closets. No more three-legged bears for me!

Tip of the Day:  Keeping old, unwanted stuff isn't an obligation or a social duty. Instead, clear out, clean out, air out the past and make 2018 the year to let go. Holding onto items you mistakenly think you have to only sets up resistance and resentment. This also goes for any unloved, unfinished creative projects you don't want to work on any longer. Be brave, take a deep breath, and make the new year a clean slate.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Happy Creative 2018!


Happy 2018, everyone! It's great to be starting a new page, a fresh chapter, and even an entire book if that's what we want to do. The possibilities are endless.

2017 was a good year for me; I accomplished many of my goals, added some new ones, and discovered what it is I truly love to do: write and draw, of course!

Some of the year's highlights included:
  • Travel to southern California for business, and travel to Corpus Christi, TX for sheer fun. Both trips were welcome get-aways, but later in the year when hurricane damage struck the Texas coast and California suffered such terrible fire damage, I could only think myself fortunate to have missed the devastation. I can't imagine what the residents of those states have had to endure these last months and I hope the recovery goes well for them.
  • On a more positive note, I wrote a collection of poems based on my trip to Taiwan several years ago. This is the first time I've written enough poems centered on a single theme and narrative to make a good-sized chapbook.
  • Once I was finished with the text, I then finished a series of mixed-media paintings I had started about 18 months ago, also based on scenes from Taiwan. Using watercolor, sumi ink, colored pencil, and oil pastel I tried to evoke many of the emotions, sights, and sounds I experienced in that country. My plan is to use the pictures as illustrations to the poetry when I'm ready to publish it all in book form.
  • My novel, The Abyssal Plain, went to several agents, and is currently being read in full by request right now! I had very much hoped to publish it this year, but having a positive response is a close second.
  •  I completed the first round of edits for my next novel, Ghazal, getting it ready for a second draft I'll begin in February. (I like to let drafts sit and settle for a bit before tearing them apart again.)
  • July saw me attending Camp NaNoWriMo--a side journey I never meant to take, but there's nothing like going off the beaten trail. Rather than working on a novel, I used my time and word count to write short stories, a format that fit the challenge well.
  • Overseas visitors! Friends from New Zealand made the summer special. It was so much fun to show off Albuquerque and see my town from a fresh perspective.
  • I created a new art journal, concentrating on Asian themes for future writing and painting. Similar to a journal-style "mood board," I filled the pages with my favorite colors and images for both inspiration and reference.
  • Reading. What would I do without books? The best I found in 2017 were Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves and a biography of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek by Laura Tyson Li.
  • Ink became a real mainstay for me, and I used it for much more than journaling. Ink pens, ink brushes, sumi and bamboo sticks . . . Line and watercolor wash became my full-time sketching technique, something I'll be continuing throughout this new year.
  • Last, and perhaps my favorite: I blocked out a first draft and dummy for a children's picture book, The White Pony. Learning to draw horses hasn't been easy, but I'm getting there!
So with all that out of the way, my goals for 2018 are plain and simple, no frills attached:
  1. Publish The Abyssal Plain. (I hope, I hope.)
  2. Submit Ghazal to agents and editors before the end of the year.
  3. Turn The White Pony into a ready-to-submit manuscript package including illustrations.
Accomplishing these three milestones will require a number of mini-goals, i.e., draw every day, market every day, edit and write every day. I'll be busy, but it's doing what I signed up for and I'm grateful for another year to keep working on my dreams. In the meantime, wishing you a world of joy, creativity, and achievable goals of your own. Happy New Year--may the celebrations last until December!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Baby Steps


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

Short Stories or Novels?


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

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

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

Thursday, October 5, 2017

October Retreat, Refocus, Recharge


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

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

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

September Vision Quest


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

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

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