Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...Writers Groups

The funniest thing about writer’s groups is how priceless they are. There are so many services available to writers – for a fee. You can buy writer’s guides, writer’s markets, online subscriptions to industry newsletters, conference registrations (with additional fees for one on one critiques), writing classes, etc. And all these things have varying degrees of value, even if not proportionate to their cost. But ironically, the greatest investment you can make in your writing career is the one that doesn’t cost a thing!
Joining a writers group is free, yet priceless. For just a small commitment of your time, you get personal attention to your writing. You get emotional support for the ups and downs that come with the writer’s life. You get free therapy for all the everyday things that happen between your creative outbursts. And over time, you get to see your writing clearly and dramatically improve.
It’s a funny dynamic. You sit down at a table with four or five people you’ve never met, and you dare to bare your soul through your writing. You secretly hope that they’ll burst out in a spontaneous standing ovation for your literary genius. Instead they offer dry comments about your use of passive voice and give a few suggestions for improving the pacing. You smile politely and thank them for their comments. You politely offer your feedback on theirs. Then you go home and vent. How could they not recognize your brilliance? How dare they make corrections? Who do these people think they are? Then you settle down in a day or two and reread their comments only to realize they were right! How could you have missed such obvious errors in your writing? Next time you meet, you listen more closely to their comments, eager to take notes. After a few meetings, you’re hoping they’ll have suggestions to add. After a few months, you wouldn’t dream of showing one of your manuscripts to an editor without running it by your group. Your group of strangers has transformed into a circle of friends.
Aside from your common literary interests, you’ve become interested in each other. Each person in the group has come to know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And because they applaud your strengths, you trust them to correct your weaknesses (and in their presence, you can finally admit you DO have weaknesses as a writer.) You take their suggestions and make revisions, and over time you find they have fewer and fewer suggestions for improving your work. Then comes that magical meeting when, unprompted, they say “I love this!” or “this one is ready to submit to editors!” And the praise you initially wanted from strangers means so much more now, coming from friends. I’m proud to say that I’ve become a better writer because of my writers group. I’ve been fortunate to receive two book publishing offers this year, and I know without doubt, that my writer’s group helped to make that possible. I only hope I’ve been able to give them the same support and encouragement in return. If I don’t tell my friends in my writers group often enough, I’ll say it here now – you guys truly are priceless!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Illuminations From The Illustrator

The Emotions of Color: Yellow

What color do we see when we look at the third longest wavelength (580 – 550) of the visible light spectrum? Yellow. Yellow is high in value (it’s bright) which is important to keep in mind when using it in illustration.

Yellow wears two faces, like the Roman god Janus. The Egyptians and Mayans worshiped yellow because it is the color of the sun. Yellow is the color of eastern philosophies and is considered by some to be the color of positive social relationships. However, the west uses yellow to symbolize caution, cowardice, prejudice and persecution. Yellow also plays roles in the animal kingdom. Yellow combined with black is a warning. Many of us have had run-ins with yellow jackets, to our cost!

So, considering all this, how does an illustrator make good use of yellow? In art, yellow is stimulating, energetic and optimistic. In The Yellow Boat, by Margaret Hillert, illustrated by Ed Young, Young uses the color against blue, along with complementary purples and greens, to push yellow to center stage. Even the white of the tiny boat’s sail supports rather than upstages the yellow form beneath it.

In The Boy from the Sun, written and illustrated by Duncan Weller, yellow contrasts with the grey, smog-covered urban environment of three sad children. It is the only color that appears on the first five pages of this picture book. As other colors are introduced they are muted against the brilliance of the luminous yellow that commands the reader to ‘follow me, come see what I have to show you.’

Yellow can also be used for its iconic associations. Yellow tells stories all by itself, no words needed: a bus, even if simply drawn and painted yellow, immediately suggests a school bus to most readers; a yellow tape tells us to be cautious or to keep away; yellow painted on a curb tells a story of who is allowed to park in a particular spot and who is not. What other color, painted on a light bulb, tells us bugs will stay away?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fun with Literary Turducken

You know about turducken, right? A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey? I tried to find a picture to post, but I have to be honest and tell you that none of them looked appetizing. Instead I have something much appealing (and calorie free!).

Literary Turducken!

Courtesy of twitter and book nerds everywhere, these triple mash-up titles gave me a chuckle. And now, without further ado about nothing but the truth, I give you my top ten picks.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter of Smoke and Lovely Bones

Play Misty of Chincoteague for Me and My Gal

The Lion, the Witch and the War of the World According to Garp

The Man Who Mistook His Reliable Wife for the Cat in the Hat

Stuart the Little Prince Caspian

Charlie and the Chocolate War and Peace

The Joy of Cooking the Very Hungry Caterpillars of the Earth

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Philosopher's Chamber of Secrets

A Time to Kill a Mockingjay

Ender's Hunger Game of Thrones

(If you have an appetite for more, search #literaryturducken on twitter.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why do you write for your chosen age group?

Why an author writes for the age group s/he chooses is a question that comes up often at seminars and workshops. Why do you write picture books? Middle grade? Young adult? Reasons are as varied as writers themselves. For myself, I often decide what form the work will take from the voice that brings me the story. This is because when a story idea begins to form it comes with a point of view, a tone of voice, a setting, and a problem or concern that needs a solution. These elements, taken together, tell me who the story is meant for. Sometimes the subject matter and the problem to be solved fixes the story as a picture book, or older. Sometimes this matching of story to audience is dynamic; a story that, at first, seemed most whole as a picture book can evolve into a middle grade novel, and vice versa; the book can even age up or down several times. So I would have to answer this question with ‘because that is who this story needed to be written for.’ Not very helpful, I have to admit, but it’s really true.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bits and Bytes: Writer's Block Revisited

A while back I wrote a piece on writer's block and recommended facing it head on. Writer's Digest recently posted an article advising the opposite approach. Sarah Maurer suggests taking a break and achieving a Zen state of mindlessness is the answer. So now you have both sides of the story (I'm sure there are many more!) What strategies have worked for you in overcoming writer's block? We'd love to hear them!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Author Skill Set: Persistence

Persistence: The ability to keep working when initial efforts don't pay off right away. If you're a writer, you need it. This is particularly true if you are seeking publication. The only way to learn writing is to write, which means that you are writing through the learning curve. And it can be a pretty long curve.

Most writers try to get their work published before it's ready, but that, too, is part of the learning process. You'll need to learn how and where to submit your writing and become accustomed to the ups and downs of the submission experience. There will be plenty of rejections, and you can learn important things from them. I have a different word for rejection letters: certificates of courage. Because getting past the fear of rejection and criticism is crucial in order to improve your writing.

A writer who continues to improve while simultaneously getting his work out for people to read--that is a writer who will (eventually) get published. If you stop improving, or stop submitting or stop writing all together, that's when publication doesn't happen. When you are moving up the learning curve, you will reach the point where everything comes together--the writing, the writer, the market, the timing. And good things will happen.

What motivates you to keep trying?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Author Skill Set: Creativity

I aspire to the be a writer who is constantly improving, pushing myself to take risks, see things a different way, and learn from the incredible people and world around me. In my attempts to do this, I've made a list of ten skills that I want to work on. The first (though the order is not important) is creativity skill. I define it this way: the ability to recognize, combine, and develop good story ideas.

Every author event that I've attended, someone asks the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" and the answer is always some variation of the concept that ideas come from everywhere. 

It's true. Story ideas, like interesting pebbles, are all around us, just waiting to be collected. Creativity skill comes into play as we learn to recognize them, pick them up, and know what to do with them. The idea for my novel came from a friend of mine who told me that she never visualizes anything when she reads. She might hear the dialogue and the sounds in her mind, but she never forms any mental images. I was astounded. I thought every reader visualized like I do. I still think most readers do, but since then I've met others who don't visualize. 

I began to think about this over and over.What other tasks might a non-visualizer have trouble with? Taken to the extreme, could the inability to visualize be considered a handicap? What kind of society would pose problems for a person who can't visualize things? That led me to conceive of a world in which telekinesis (the ability to move things mentally) was commonplace, which in turn led to the characters and plot of my novel which will be released Fall of 2012. 

One of the things I do to exercise creativity skill is to keep an idea box. Anytime I see something that triggers a story idea, I write it down or draw it or cut it out and put it in the box. The box is not organized at all, just a jumble of snatches of things. When I need an infusion of new ideas, I go through the mess in the box and invariably find something that sparks a new direction.

What do you do to sharpen creativity?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Illuminations From The Illustrator

The Emotions of Color: Red

What color do we see when we look at the longest wavelength of the visible light spectrum? Red. Red is visually dominant which explains why we respond to red as we do and how it can be used effectively in illustration.

Neurological studies have shown that humans react to colors at a primal level; red stimulates and attracts, makes us more alert, even aggressive. In a group of colors, we see red first. In many cultures red is considered the color of good fortune, luck and prosperity. Red also plays roles in the animal kingdom. The poison-dart frog from Ecuador and the Texas coral snake both use variations of red in their body color to signal danger. Ever wonder why bright orange is worn by hunters? Deer cannot see red or its variations but it allows hunters to more easily see each other.

So, considering all this, how does an illustrator make good use of red? One way is to clothe the protagonist in red. In Last Night, by Hyewon Yum, red is used sparingly, barely present in a story that takes place at night. But the little girl wears a red nightgown thus preserving her leading status even when other creatures are drawn much larger or dominate the action on the page.

In The Three Questions, written and illustrated by Jon Muth, red is used so sparingly that at first it only appears in the brilliant red kite that the boy flies as he plays. It symbolizes wisdom. Near the end of the book, red is used in the boy’s shirt, appearing simultaneously with the text that tells us the boy is learning the lessons the old turtle has been teaching him. Red visually binds the boy to what he has learned.

Red can become a character all its own as it does in the illustrations of Pamela Zagarenski for Red Sings from Treetops, by Joyce Sidman. In this book, red is not only the cheerful harbinger of spring, it is the brave, buoyant, hardy spirit that transcends all seasons, never quite fading or disappearing completely from the winter landscape. It reappears the next spring as the snow melts, symbolizing a wonderful resurrection.

On a more direct level, red can be used to alert the reader that the action is about to move faster or become more emotionally intense, even explosive. We see this when red is used to visually represent anger or rage.

Do other colors have a range of emotions this wide or deep? I’ll explore the contributions of other colors in later posts. Keep watching!