Try, Try Again: Creative Pursuits

One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever seen for writers is this quote by Joe Chiappetta. Chiappetta is a graphic novelist with a style that is loose and a little messy. He is also extremely prolific. Being willing to take chances has paid off for him.

I’ll admit that I hesitated to sign up for the graphic novel course that I’m currently taking. I want to write them. I do NOT want to illustrate them and this class requires us to do some drawing. Still, what could it hurt to try?

The idea that I’m playing with isn’t for a full-blown graphic novel but single or double panel comics. The focus is on creativity and cats. I’m calling it The Mews. Obviously, if I’m going to pull this off, I have to draw a cat.

Both of my cats are black and I thought this would be pretty clever. Nothing is harder to photograph than a black cat. When I wrote for Young Equestrian, I thought horses were hard to photograph because nine photos out of ten are a horse making a ridiculous face. Then I started trying to photograph my black cat. Black cats absorb light like nothing else so all you get in the photo is a cat-shaped, black blob.

A creative muse is also an unpredictable, difficult thing. What better way to portray a muse than with a black cat?

But cleverness can be its own punishment. Because now I have to draw my ink black cat. For my first attempt, I inked Sleeping Mews 1. Not half bad. I like the way the white ink stands out against the black. But what if it isn’t the best way to do it? After all, my Mews will often have open eyes.

Sleeping Mews 1

For my second attempt, I decided to give my muse bright green eyes and add detail with grey vs white. I was unimpressed with the overall effect you see in Hiding Mews 1. I probably should have quit with my first drawing!

Hiding Mews 1

What if I duplicated Hiding Mews with white ink? That led to Hiding Mews 2. I like that a little better, but I still don’t like the eyes. And I got the shape of the face wrong. Newton, this particular muse, is a 15 pound male with a square head.

Hiding Mews 2

Discouraged, I went back to the sleeping cat. Maybe I could use grey ink and detail with black lines. Thus I created Sleeping Mews 2. Nope.

Sleeping Mews 2

I’m not sure what Chiappetti would say about my various attempts. Of them all, I like Sleeping Mews 1 the best. But I’m glad I tried several other approaches. I can’t defend the one that I end up using if I haven’t tried anything else.

Now, to figure out how to capture cat eyes.


How to Reach The End

Photo by Ann H on

Three days ago, a friend dropped off a book. This is something she does periodically, leaving things on our front bench and then texting me to go outside and check. “I just knew this would inspire you.” I didn’t even have to read the back cover before I found myself jotting down an idea. Yesterday, I saw a new book in a marketing newsletter. The title inspired another new idea. I wrote it down. Today, I listened to something about a Carnegie library. Here came another idea.

Then one of my friends on social media posted. “I’ve been working on a novel, but a new idea came to me. I wrote the story. It is best to act on inspiration.”

Maybe. But it all depends on how you work. If I did this, I would never reach the ending of anything too long to draft in one sitting. I would certainly never finish the draft of a novel. My mother always said that I was like a myna bird. Any bright, shiny object is likely to distract me.

New ideas work much the same way especially if I’m wading through the second half of a novel. By then, the shine has worn off my current project and it is serious work. Every time I sit down to write, I chant a few rounds of I think I can, I think I can.

Some people only have this problem in the very middle. Me? It lasts more of less through the second half of the manuscript. By then I have a pretty good idea what I have to fix and I’m not even done with the first draft! The new idea, on the other hand, is so shiny and marvelous and unblemished. Wouldn’t it be great to spend the day writing it instead?

Yes, I could start writing on something new. But if I did this every time I had a great new idea, I’d start three or four new things a week.

How do I reach the end of a project? I sketch out that new idea. When I’m eager to work on it, I think about it for a few minutes. I write out that idea I just had for a character. I take a few notes on the setting. I write down the story problem.

But when it is time to write, I get back to work on the old manuscript. Because the only way to reach the end is to keep writing. Word by word, you are getting closer to having a finished manuscript. If you want to reach the end, you need to work on it.


Humor: The Spoonful of Sugar

It pays to make your reader laugh.

Yesterday while I was puttering along on the treadmill, I watched a brilliant TED Talk by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas – Why Great Leaders Take Humor Seriously. It isn’t hard to get someone to admit that they love to laugh and why is pretty obvious once you realize something that Aaker and Bagdonas point out. When we laugh, our brains release hormones. Yes, that’s hormones plural. During laughter, the brain released endorphins (as during exercise), cortisol (as during meditation), and dopamine (as during sex). That’s a three for one impact!

The power of laughter is so strong, and so important in today’s world, that Aaker and Bagdonas teach a class at the Stanford Business School. Read that again. The Stanford Business School. You can get something about laughter and leadership or you can take personal management or microeconomics.

The pair went on to explain that listeners were more receptive and willing to pay more for a product or service (20% more!) if they laughed. This is a pretty powerful message for writers especially writers who deal with serious subjects.

At the moment, I am listening to The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate. For those of you who don’t know the book, there are paired story lines. One is about a former slave child who sets out to rescue two young women, her hated mistress and this woman’s creole half-sister, and ends up looking for the siblings and cousins she was separated from during the Civil War. The second story is about Benny, a new teacher who realizes that her poor African-American students don’t care about Animal Farm but might connect with stories from their own pasts.

It is some scary, serious stuff. In spite of this, Wingate make you laugh. When Benny realizes some of her students are hungry, she starts stocking cream cakes (think Ding Dongs) which solve the problem so much as encourage her students to ask for sweets. She is taught by an older woman in the community to make a healthier banana and oatmeal cookie that is cheap to make. It would have been super easy to call them banana oatmeal cocoa cookies or cocoa raisin banana cookies or whatever. Instead, this stern, dignified matriarch teaches Benny to make Cocoa Oatmeal Raisin Pooperoos.

I laughed out loud. In no way does the name of the cookie diminish the desperate poverty in the modern community. It doesn’t take away from the fact that young women were still be snatched up and sold after the Civil War. But it does help the reader release some of the tension that they are holding and continue on with the story.

The print book that I’m reading is just as serious but I’m not going to name it. The author is a best seller but he has forgotten to make his reader laugh. And because of this, I’m contemplating skiping to the end and calling it a day. Without the humor, the book is just too much to slog through.

And now I’ve got a mission. I know I managed to pull it early on in Airstream, but I need to do it again. I need to make my reader laugh. I want them to stick with my story until the end.

Too bad I can’t just recycle Cocoa Oatmeal Raisin Pooperoos. That name still cracks me up.


Learning about Graphic Novel Design

Who knew studying books was so tricky!? Our first assignment for the graphic novel class is to list what you like and don’t about a favorite graphic novel. Not surprisingly, I got out The Way of the House Husband. I sat down and studied the panels on the first page. Then I went over the ones on the second page. Before long, I had fallen into joyful reading.

I refocused and tried again. No good. The same thing happened.

Next, I paged through it from the back. Without the reading flow, I could look at font, inking, and various illustration techniques. I didn’t notice things that I disliked but I did notice various things that Oono did. The font is all caps as is the font in Amulet.

Normal Dialogue
Intense Dialogue

Thunder and Cluck and Sprinkles and Swirls use caps as lower case as I do here on the blog. That makes sense since these are early reader graphic novels. Beginning readers are still getting a feel for language and writing and are still learning the rules for when to use caps and when to use lower case.

In Oono’s work, normal dialogue bubbles are bubble-shaped, nice and rounded (see left). But other times dialogue bubbles are bounded by straight lines and angles (see right). At first I thought that was angry dialogue but then I realized that those are the times when someone feels something intense. It is a subtle technique but I like it. In Amulet, intense dialogue is bolder.

Blurry fastness aka zoom

This isn’t the only thing that Oono does differently from other artists. It isn’t unusual to show speed or force with lines streaming back from a figure. Oono does that but that isn’t all. Instead of black lines to outline the figure’s hand, broken lines show it is a blur of speed.

I don’t know that I’m achieving a new level of mastery but I am definitely learning to look at graphic novels in a different way — right up until I forget that I’m studying and just start reading.


The Importance of Who is Speaking

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Last week, a friend of mine posted two stories about curriculum conflicts in his home town. He grew up in Monette, Missouri where a school has pulled the novel Dear Martin by Nic Stone. The book had been included on a 9th grade assignment list but it has now been replaced by . . . To Kill a Mockingbird.


Don’t get me wrong. I really liked To Kill a Mockingbird. It was also one of my son’s favorite assigned books. But it does not need to be the go-to book to assign to teach high school students about race and society. It does not.

The discussion surrounding my friend’s post was interesting. One woman admitted that although she loved the book and her children liked it, her grandkids just didn’t understand what was so amazing. They didn’t connect with the book the way my friend and her classmates had.

Why? It is hard to say. Writing styles change over time so that books published in 2017, when Dear Martin came out, is going to be notably different than a book that was published in 1960, when To Kill a Mockingbird was published. And one of those things is more than a matter of style. it is a matter of who tells the story.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee, a white woman. In the story, a white character saves the day. And really? That’s a problem for today’s reader. Today’s student needs a story that is not only accurate in discussing race and racism but is also empowering.

That’s why #OwnVoices stories are so important. Young readers need to read stories penned by a variety of authors. Not only do a variety of people need to be heard, they need to tell their own stories. When one of my friends pointed out that To Kill a Mockingbird suffered from white savior syndrom, I laughed. No, the reality isn’t funny but what my friend said was so obvious. And it isn’t the sort of thing that the majority of Black readers will need to have pointed out.

They see it in books. They see it in movies. They see characters who look like them in narrow boxes, allowed to do only certain things.

Me? I’ve checked out the audiobook of Dear Martin.


Keeping Track of What’s What: The Agent Search

Looking for agents is NOT a simple task.
(Desk blotter with fountain pen and magnifying glass.)

Anyone who is searching for an agent knows that there is a lot of information involved. In addition to the agent’s name and the agency name, you’ve got what they represent, how they want the material, and so much more.

Yes, this information is online. But there is finding it once and being able to find it again. Even if you bookmark the site and page, you have to hope an update doesn’t shift that detail elsewhere. So what do you do?

In this, the age of webinars, I screen shot slides. Then I paste these shots into a document on that particular agent. This isn’t information that I share, it is simply my way of taking notes. I capture book covers and wish lists.

But when it comes time to compare agents, I need something skimmable that has information on the whole gaggly. I use an Excel spreadsheet. Columns include what they want, whether or not they respond, who they represent, and books they’ve loved.

It seems like an eclectic scattering of information but all of this helps me rank them. If I have two agents who represent nonfiction and picture book authors but only one responds, that agent is now in the lead. If both agents respond but one is only looking for author/illustrators, that person drops in the rankings.

It sounds complex but a lot of it is instinct. When an agent says that they love humorous books but everything they list as “books loved” felt angsty to me, I know this person would be a bad fit. When I realize an agent is a bad fit, I change their font to red. WARNING. They aren’t a bad agent, they are just not a good agent for me. But I keep them in the database so that I remember I’ve researched them.

The best matches? Those are highlighted in green. Get it? They have a green light. Again, it isn’t that they are better in any way other than that I think they are a better fit for me.

Some of my students keep track of agents in a Word document. Others use index cards. Like finding an agent, the key is to find or create a system that is a good match for you.


3 Ways to Slow Things Down: Picture Book Pacing

In addition to being an agent, Tracy is the author of Chicken Wants a Nap.

Yesterday I read Tracy Marchini’s e-mail newsletter, The Quacktory. In it, she wrote about the function of picture book page turns. Marchini wrote about how page turns do three things. They indicate the passage of time (and then this happened). The allow for humor and surprise after the page turn. And they control pacing. You can read a version of her article here on Cynsations.

I may have had other things to do yesterday, but I found myself considering picture book pacing. The example that Marchini gave involved a two-page spread with a character illustrated to take up almost an entire page (cow), looking away from the page turn. The character in question is looking at a character on the previous page (chicken). The reader is thus encouraged to also look at the character for a moment. That slows things down.

Two-page Spreads

Creating two-page spreads in your story is a great way to slow things down. Single page spreads are fast reads. After all, with text and illustration on one page, there is only so much room for text. Read. Read. Turn. Read. Read. Turn. Things move along at a steady pace.

A two-page spread is panoramic. It gives the illustrator more space to create a vast image, an image that can invite the reader to linger and drink it all in.

Pages that Fold Out

There is probably a spiffy name for these special two-page spreads but these are spreads where two pages just are not enough. Instead, the pages fold open to create an even larger expanse. Suddenly the spread is up to twice as wide or as tall as usual. The illustrator and the writer have even more space to play.

Not only does this invite the reader to linger, but manipulating the pages slows the reading experience down as well. Pages must be unfolded, opening the book up. Then they must be folded back in.

Turning the Book

One last way that the book designer and the illustrator can slow things down is by changing the orientation of the book. This often accompanies pages that fold out. The reader is enjoying a book that, when opened, is wider than it is tall.

Suddently they turn the page to discover that to see things correctly, they need to open the book. Now it is very tall indeed.

And again, this takes time.

You might be tempted to think that all of this is in the hands of the illustrator or the art director. But think about it in terms of story. You are writing about a journey through the woods. Then you write, “Before them opened a vast valley.” That begs for a two page spread or even a fold out.

If you had written, “The tree was taller than a building. It reached up among the clouds,” that might require you to turn the book to see this amazing tree. Give the illustrator a reason to slow things down. Picture books are, after all, a marriage between text and illustration.

You can sign up for Tracy’s newsletter here.


3 Tricks to Working from Home

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on

I love working from home. I wear my pajamas to my desk in the morning. I change after coffee before I get on the treadmill, and I can read my morning e-mail on the treadmill! Yay. But as a lot of people have discovered as they’ve worked from home the past two years, there are some tricks to getting things done.

Set a Schedule

Most of us need to set some kind of schedule. Mine has always been, more or less, a traditional work day, 8 or 9 until 5:30 or so. This is because I want to have time off work when my family is off work.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t work during the evening or weekends but that’s my decision and I set the schedule. After all, when a deadline is tight, I might be putting in twelve hour days. Don’t worry! I’m not at my desk for twelve hours straight. Especially with my husband working from home, there are lunchtime walks and there is lunche time in the dining room. But I’m getting a lot done during that twelve hours.

Set Goals

One trick to keeping to a schedule is having something to work on. Because of this, when I’m not under contract for a job, I set goals and projects for myself. It must work at least to an extent because I’m productive.

Sometimes this means setting word count goals. 250 words/day.

Sometimes the goals are what I call “get it done” goals. Update the welcome page on my site. Draft Airstream Act 3.

I set both monthly and weekly goals. The weekly goals are detailed in my bullet journal and I cross them off with a brush marker as I get things done.

Set Boundaries

It doesn’t matter if you set a schedule and goals if you don’t set boundaries. When people know you are available . . . let’s just say that the expectations they have for a freelance author working from home are going to be utterly and entirely different from the expectations they have for someone teaching class from home.

Ninety percent of the time, I work with social media open in the background. Part of the reason for this is because my goals include setting up my work related posts and Tweets for the following day. But certain people have realized that if they Facebook message me enough, the pinging in the background will annoy me enough that I respond.

Or so they think. I am an introvert who loves her boundaries. I have no qualms about telling someone I am working and will read their messages later. Click. Then I close the social media. I don’t answer the phone when I’m working. I don’t return texts.

This isn’t to say that I block people completely. I just checked everything while I was at lunch. That way I can deal with anything earth shattering.

Set a schedule. Set goals. Set limits. And then get to writing. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’ve put my character in quite a predicament. I need to get back to sorting her out.


3 Things to Know about Writing a First Draft

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere,” Anne Lamott. (Photo of red pencil)

To be a successful writer, you have to be a successful rewriter. Because, really? Most rough drafts are really rough. At least that is how I write.

Some writers I know polish their first sentence. Then they rough and polish their second sentence. Eventually they have a first paragraph that is shiny and amazing. Me? My first paragraph is generally pretty solid and my first chapter tends to be strong as well.

But the deeper into the project I get, the messier things become and that’s okay. Because it is important to . . .

Keep Moving Foward and Adding New Words

So many people in this business are going to tell you that you can’t sell your work if it isn’t perfect. It has to be flawless and amazing.

This thought causes a lot of writers to freeze up. They just can’t get that first paragraph down. I’d like to encourage you to change your perspective. Your manuscript needs to be as strong as you can make it but that isn’t going to happen on the first try. There will be problems with your first draft. So just get it down. Keep moving forward and adding new words. Just do it.

It Isn’t Going to Be Perfect

Your first draft is most likely going to be far from perfect. I say “most likely” because every once in a while you are going to create a poem or a picture book, an essay or an article, and the first draft will be amazing. It happens.

But 99% of the time it is going to be a hot mess. And that’s okay. Because once you get it down, you can start to fix it. But that can only happen when you’ve fiinished a draft.

Part of the problem is that when you are roughing Chapter 6, you are going to realize that something should have been included in Chapter 5. That is why it is important to . . .

Keep Track of Future Changes

How I do this differs from day to day. Sometimes I write notes to mseyf. FIX THAT TYPO. SHOULD READ MYSELF. Clearly, I wouldn’t actually do this when I make a typo. I would fix it. But the notes that I do write to myself vary a great deal. PLANT A CLUE ABOUT THIS EARLIER ON. WHAT TERM DID YOU USE IN CHAPTER 1? BRILLIANT TRANSITION GOES HERE.

Every once in a while, a scene pops into my head. It is something that should have gone before my current chapter. In such cases, I don’t write myself a note. I simply write the scene and put it wherever I think it should go.

That may change but a lot is going to change between the first draft and the end. The key is to get it all down so that I can start reworking it.


Evergreen Topics

Whether you write for magazines, online markets or books, there are topics that are evergreen. Fro those of you who don’t know this term, evergreen topics are those that editors always need depending on the season and market.

For example, parenting markets look for pieces on child safety and raising confident children. In last summer, the publish pieces on going back to school. Winter topics include Christmas and how to keep your child on a regular schedule over winter break.

See what I mean? Gardening publications publish about starting seeds and native planting.

Knitting and crochet publications look for pieces on the latest yarns. They also publish patterns and how to substitute yarns or how to create garments with the perfect fit.

The key when you write an evergreen topic is to come up with a new approach. Author Richard Osman poked fun at this problem in his mystery The Thursday Murder Club. When one of the police officers comes and speaks at the retirement community, a group or residents set her straight early in her talk. She’d given her talk, “Practical Tips for Home Security,” to numerous groups but this was the first time that members of the audience had told her what not to talk about. After all, they already know to use window locks and to ask would-be repair people for IDs.

Photo by Breakingpic on

What does that have to do with evergreen topics? Come Easter, the editor will have seen plenty of pieces on dying eggs and creating Easter Baskets. You are going to have to come up with something new. Perhaps your family uses something other than an Easter Basket. Maybe you decorate something other than eggs. Write about that! How could you make Easter about generosity or the environment?

Whatever evergreen topic you chose to write about, make it fresh and new. One way to make sure your piece is new is to look at what has already been published. Explore your target market but explore competing markets as well.

Evergreen topics are a great starting place when it comes time to brainstorm story ideas. Just be certain to go beyond the obvious. After all, we already know about locking our windows and asking for IDs.