Sunday, August 30, 2009

Writing pt 2: Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?

So you’re ready to write. You’ve got your computer on and a blank Word page in front of you.

Now what?

Well, first you have to understand what kind of writer you are. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write by the seat of your pants—just sit down and write what comes to you—or do you have to figure EVERYTHING out before you can begin to write your first word?

Most people are somewhere between the two extremes, or if they’re like me, they find themselves sliding from different spots on the scale depending on where in the book they are.

I’m basically a plotter. I gots to have me a hard, definite plot in mind at some fairly early part of the writing. I ALWAYS know how the book will end. (And yet I know a few people who NEVER know how it ends!) I usually have a scene or two in my mind. Then all I have to do is figure out how things got that way, how those scenes come about, etc.

For example, on my current wip (that’s “work in progress”) I knew that the end sequence would involve our plucky heroine strapped on the outside of a spaceship as it barreled through hyperspace. I knew that the midpoint (that’s a big Turning Point in your book which amazingly enough occurs smack in the middle) would involve zero-gravity sex. And, oh yeah, I wanted the action to take place on a space station of some kind because you almost never see space stations in sci fi and I wanted to be Different.

It took me a very long time to build a book around that. Very, very long time. Extreeeemely long time. (The fact that I’m a procrastinator helped the delay.) (And this was going to be my "how fast can I write a book?" experiment, too!) I’ve only recently figured out many of the finer details, but everything fits together now and it’s just a matter of correcting what’s been writen already and adding some bridge material between some scenes. And then a few dozen rewrites just to make sure it’s perfect.

So I had a couple of ideas before I wrote the first word. I know people who don’t. Not anything. They sit down and possibly spirit channel for all I know to get those words on the page.

And some of them succeed marvelously!

I also know a published writer who has to have a detailed outline of EVERYTHING that happens in the book before she begins. That outline is over twenty pages long! She follows it word by word. If I had to operate that way I'd go raving insane.

A lot of pantsers are character-driven. I really hate to say this, as I’m a plotter and all, but... wait, let me put this in bold:

Character is MUCH more important than plot.

You can have weak plot if you’ve got strong characters, but the opposite doesn’t work, no matter how many flashy explosions you add to things. Think about your favorite books and movies. What do you recall the best? The special effects and cool theories, or the colorful characters? Ah ha!

We who are weak at characterization just have to work harder at it, that's all.

If you have a character before you start to write your book you know their strengths and weaknesses. You can work with them to figure out what’s going to make their weaknesses so dominant that they’re going to face an almost insurmountable problem and will have to change, to build upon their strengths, maybe even find the positive points within their weaknesses, in order to survive. (Hint: read a book about enneagrams to find out the major weaknesses-strengths combos.)

Many years ago I discovered the Plot Doctor. She’s got a website at http://www.theplotdoctor.netfirms.com/ , and her forms and process build off a seminal writing book called GMC: Goals, Motivation and Conflict, by Debra Dixon. http://www.debradixon.com/gmc.html

The Doctor had a sheet with a chart that had the turning points and important moments of a novel’s structure listed on it. You filled these in, and voila! You already had a lot of scenes figured out and could see the general flow of your book.

If you were a plotter, you could figure out your characters by what they needed to be to function within those scenes, and how they best faced conflict. If you were a pantser/character-driven, you first filled out a chart about your characters and what kind of conflicts they were up against, and thus could figure out your plot points.

You don’t have to have the Plot Doctor to show you these plot points. I just finished Save the Cat, by the late Blake Snyder, and he’s got a list of ‘em with different names on his “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.” He calls his “Big Black Moment” the “All is Lost” moment, but his Midpoint is still the Midpoint. It’s on page 70 of his book.

Read his book, too. It’s entertaining reading and concerns screenwriting instead of novel-writing, but just about everything he says can be applied to your book.

So how do I write? Well, I begin with what I know: hyperspace scene, zero-g sex scene, space station. Then I think. I can’t have that hyperspace scene unless there are spaceships in the picture, so maybe my space station is some kind of space port where ships come in a lot.

I remember the space station from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It looked like a gigantic wheel spinning in space to create a false kind of gravity. At the center of this wheel is a zero-g zone (gravity increases the farther you get from the center). So that’s where the sex scene will take place.

But how did my heroine get to this space station? Why, I bet it wasn’t her idea. Maybe she was even kidnapped by aliens. No, by a sexy hunk of a guy, yeah.

For some reason the Scarlet Pimpernel came to mind, so Sexy Hunk was going to be British and operate under a secret identity deal. Which meant he was a spy or freedom rider or some such. He lived adventure every day.

Which to me meant that my heroine didn’t so she would contrast to him. She was an everyday shlub, working to provide food on the table and a roof over her head. Say, she’s been kidnapped. Put into a completely alien environment, no other humans around (okay, that changed a tiny bit). How does she survive Out There? Surely her number-one goal would be to get back home, but... what if she decided she liked it on the station?

And what if Our Sexy Pimpernel did not?

Then I had to come up with a threat menacing enough that Our Hero would be involved in stopping it, and Our Heroine would be obsessed with stopping it, but from another direction. Everyone's lives would be on the line because of the threat...

But this came after a lot of thinking. Then I’d sit down and write what I thought I had, then write on from there into unknown territory until I got stuck and had to come back to reassess the plot.

Restructure. Rewrite. Write from seat of pants. Restructure. Etc. etc etc until the first draft is done.

After that (and not before) you’ll discover what your book’s Theme is. This will be a statement of how the world works that you’ll want to bring out. It could be “True Love Conquers All” or “Illegal Immigration is Bad” or "Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day," or something, and the beginning of your book will pretty much state it outright. Then the rest of the book will be either proving or disproving this statement. You’ll be surprised at how much depth a theme can add to a book. You know when you’ve read a book that the author has taken the time to define and refine their theme. It’s ever so much more satisfying.

During all this postulating and stuff, your characters are going to go through what is called an “arc.” This means that they will change. Joe will have discovered that he truly can settle down with just one woman by the end of the book. Jill will discover that she does indeed have enough courage and skills to slay the dragon that’s been menacing her village.

So it’s okay to be a pantser OR a plotter OR someone in between OR someone who fluctuates from one to the other. Everyone has their own way of writing.

Your job is to discover what works best for YOU.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Focusing in on Wonder Woman!

I usually do my crits on the DC Message Boards but this time I wanted to use a few scans, so here we are. Welcome to my blog, visitors!

First of all, we WW fans (mostly) are counting our blessings by having not only Aaron Lopresti but Gail Simone on the book. That's right: we have not only great art but great writing talent on board! Which is why we can start considering more than just the fundamentals of the characters, which usually get screwed up by creative teams.

At the "conclusion" (not really a conclusion, imho, but rather a transition issue labeled as a conclusion) of the last arc, I commented that things had fallen apart. Focus had been lost.

I think that's what went wrong for me with this arc, which consisted of a mere two issues, #34 & 35. The focus is not where it should be. It shifts around. It doesn't center on Diana and her immediate needs/problems.

When we left her in ROTO (which sounds like a civic organization), she was banged up, mangled by her new Gail-induced "kryptonite," gods-weaponry.

Gail has been making a point in all her stories (that immediately come to mind), to make sure Diana is good and beated up. Here she's even had to have had Phillie tape her hands to her lasso and axe because her body is so broken. (Yet still Diana--not a god--manages to "kill" a god, Ares.)

We begin our new arc one DAY later. Here's Diana.

Nary a scratch on her. Heck, her armor's all repaired! And even though she RENOUNCED her Amazon heritage, all status, etc. last ish, here she is. Everything she's wearing, everything she's toting along, proclaims her Amazon heritage. She wears the costume of Amazon champion, the tiara of Amazon princess/ambassador, bracelets of an Amazon, lasso of the Amazon champion, etc.

Previously when Diana had to give up being Wondie (but not an Amazon), she went into Biker Chick mode. She still managed some spangles, but she had to give up her outfit and the lasso to Artemis.

We get a cutesy polar bear scene and I was too busy fretting about Diana making the bears feel as if they could approach humans (so dangerous for both parties!) and for her not making sure that these guys were safe from famine and global warming which is so much in the news related to polar bears, etc., that I was brought out of the story. Plus, in the past ish many had pointed out that Diana had left her pursuit of Genocide, who was actively and massively massacring folks, to visit her friend Etta in the hospital. Now that Diana had a few moments I wondered why she was palling around with bearsies instead of checking up on Etta or her sister, both of whom had been in dire straits the last she saw of them.

Diana is a Bad Friend.

Diana returns to her apartment and the Gorilla Knights (whom I really like but yes, I wish their sense of smell would amp down. "You smell tribeless," Tolifhar tells Diana. Next he'll tell her that she smells like she has mother issues. This bit has been used too many times for increasingly less plausible conditions.) When Diana is in her shower (why can't she spare three minutes for it if she's already wet?) she says something that stunned me. Tolifhar reports that Tom has been by, and that he smelled different (ugh).

Diana: Well, he lost a lot of friends at the D.M.A. massacre.


He lost HIS friends. They were Diana's friends as well. They were her co-workers, her acquaintances, the people she had assigned to be under her command on her own squad. And she has the temerity not to mention this?

Diana comes across as inhuman.

But Diana speeds to Tom and finds T.O. Morrow there. Our mission for the arc is spelled out:

Makes perfect sense. Go to Japan because GENOCIDE is there. Genny may be hurt badly, but Dr. Psycho is there as well and will "repair" her. Genocide, recall, is capable of massacres and twisting people's souls inside-out. She has a VERY unlikely (and imho quite regrettable) origin that involves being a future corpse of Diana at her base, so that alone should make her the very focused TARGET of Diana's plans.

But this is the last we'll hear of Genny in this arc. Forget it/her. Everyone else does.

I should be going through this in order and balancing the good with the not-so-good, but let's stay with this. We've got the basis of our plot: go to Japan, get Psycho and through him, grab & dispose of Genny. Diana gets the aid of Black (Dinah) Canary and they Invisible Jet off to Japan, where they don disguises and join a crime arena of death that they think is run by Psycho. Good enough.

But once they're there they don't do anything (besides beat up some bad guys that have nothing to do with the plot). In fact, taking a break from it all...

No, Diana. You shouldn't be preparing for the fight. You should be investigating where the heck Psycho is, and where he's got Genny. That's the REASON YOU'RE HERE!!!

But leave it to Black Canary to tell us the real plot of the arc:

WHOA! The story has suddenly changed! Pardon me while I pick myself up. Now, if we'd just have had this presented at the BEGINNING of the story: that AFTER Diana had checked on her friends and colleagues and sister, she set out to rescue Sarge Steel and tracked him (through Morrow) to Japan... THAT I could have lived with. That would have set Diana up as a Good Friend who cares about folks. That would have kept us on target, pretty much. But it's after the fact now, halfway into the story that someone somewhere slapped their forehead and realized they were leading the story along the wrong path.

SO: the mission NOW is to save Sarge from Psycho's taking over his brain. K. Diana comes across Steel in Psycho's body and uses her lasso (even though it's dangerously out of kilter from its encounter with Genny) (even though her doing so might completely compromise their mission of catching Psycho) to make Steel remember his true self.

Finally after a battle supreme in the arena, Diana, BC and Steel confront Psycho in Steel's body:

This is what the entire story's been leading up to, at least the A plotline. And...? And that's where it ends. We don't see anything more. We don't see the battle that should have happened. We don't see the outcome. We don't get the catharsis from seeing Steel back in his own body, thanking his rescuers.

It falls flat. Not only has the story changed its target along the way, but once it's hit it--or about to--it stops and switches directions to Plots B-Z.

Another target that it missed was that Diana is supposed to be the star of her own book. I realize that Black Canary is a favorite of Gail's and she wrote her for years and BC is currently being badly misused in the rest of the DCU, but this is Diana's book. Diana shouldn't come across as a newbie who has to rely on BC to do and know everything.

It was odd to have BC talking like Lady Blackhawk (another Bird of Prey) in the first issue, then settle down in the second. Gail was trying to use this to humorous effect, but we weren't shown Diana's reaction to the dialogue pattern. Why couldn't Diana have cracked a smile? Would we have gotten close enough to see? Even in the panels where Diana is supposed to have a moment to mourn the absence of her Amazon sisters, the camera stays what seems 20 feet away from her instead of settling in for some good body language time. Is this the script not allowing the artist to come to the forefront? The artist not being able to portray body language? A combo of both?

We're missing Diana acting as a HUMAN. She should have human feelings. She shouldn't always be in her own head analyzing things as if she were a computer. Diana is the most human hero of them all!

And she's even more human when she's not in her Wonder duds. That is, if you all recall Circe putting a spell on Diana so that when she's not Wonder Woman she doesn't have WW powers. It was a stupid spell, but GS has utilized it (to unlikely degree with Capt. Nazi). Why then, when Diana is dressed up as one of the "Orphan Sisters" and not as WW, is she still in full possession of her powers?

And how does Black Canary manage to take down an entire squad of fairly powerful super-villains by herself? Implausible. Oh, I MIGHT see her being able to do such in her own book. Maybe. Perhaps. Okay, not likely. But in Diana's book? NEVER!

And why is Black Canary channeling Etta Candy? The WW book already has an Etta. It doesn't need another. Black Canary is also most distressingly channeling Diana. She is "someone who has a glimmer of understanding. Who wants nothing. Who demands nothing. Who is happy just to help... Maybe hers is the wisest counsel of all." and "That's Dinah. Always finding the kindest possible interpretation for people's actions. It's hard not to love her."

No, that's not Dinah. That's DIANA.

Because Dinah's the star of this show we get to see her all bubbly and efficient. Why does Diana always have to be the gloomy gus? Why can't she be the joyful creature she was created as?

Why, Diana even TAKES THE RAP for Zeus being a murdering jerk. WHY? WHY??? Zeus and Kane were both grown ups. They were GODS. Powerful gods. Gods who'd operated for millennia.

But Diana feels she has to be responsible for their actions?

It all reminds me of "The Philadelphia Story," which would be hands-down the greatest movie ever made except for one thing: In it, Katharine Hepburn's character's father is an alcoholic philanderer who blames his state/actions on her for being an unloving daughter. (It never occurs to him that she might have distanced herself from him BECAUSE he was an alcoholic philanderer.) AND SHE FINALLY ADMITS IT. It's all her fault. He bears none of the blame. Sickening!

And here is Diana. Of course, if all this bothers her, why isn't she bothered by the host, the veritable MOUNTAIN of sins she's piled up over the years, of bad people and acts that somehow can be traced back to her being in the world?

Ridiculous. Diana is an idiot.

This is why I didn't particularly like this arc. Diana is portrayed as inhuman (lacking in feelings), a bad friend, and an idiot. Oh, but she's a good fighter. And she can switch her allegiances at the drop of a spangled hat.

On the other hand, Black Canary is a person of humor, who helps her friends diligently, and who has style, cunning and panache. Yet this is Diana's book.

Yet for all this the story did give us a lot of good stuff. The art was quite good (ho hum, as usual), though I'd like to see Aaron work on his body language (and grab some time in the script to display any skills in such). T.O. Morrow got a little depth to him. Gail has been working on the guy so he seems a good addition to the Wonder cast if she should choose to make him such. Canary as Diana's friend is long overdue. They've been in the JLA together for how long? We should see them together often--but the Canary should not be a clone of Etta Candy or vice versa. And keep a place by Diana's side for Donna!

Canary's closet was a hoot. (The Betsy Ross mention unfortunate, unless it was meant as humor from Diana, which should have been played up as such.) The comforts of the Invisible Plane and state of Amazon opera were nice bits. Alky as Achilles' wife--what a great situation! BC's handling of Muck was interesting.

The awful "Happy Magic Fun Sword Girl" thing was a hilarious send-up of that line. Did the book get any $$ for such prominent product placement? It should have. The initial "second-best boobs" line was a classic, but perhaps the followup was a beat too far. Didn't get BC's "salaryman" allusion. Wonder what Diana's promised Pele. Wonder why Diana keeps agreeing with everyone when they tell her that Zeus was her patron. He wasn't. Ever. And why would she have paid him any allegiance if she thought he was a "hosebag"?

Most of fannish attention, it seems, has been focused on Diana's final confrontation with Tom and her offer of showering with him (they've only had one kiss!). Well, I didn't find her statement in context that bad, clearly something to break the very thick ice, but I find the entire Tom relationship uncomfortable, and Gail's stint on the book has just seemed to exacerbate it all, and not in a good, focused, logical (relating to plot, not life) manner.

What most of this boils down to (and don't you wish I'd gotten to the point about fifty paragraphs ago!) is that I'd like to see Gail FOCUS more. I know she likes her subplots, her dangling plots, her hints and whiffs of things to come. That's fabulous.

But they should be kept under control. Every story arc should tie up more than just one thread. Every story arc should have a beginning and end to it. When a story's plotline is laid out at the beginning, it should be adhered to and not suddenly changed without explanation.

I understand how deep an author gets into their stories. That's why an author needs an editor. So: Yo, editor! Ms. Gehrlein! Please keep track of Gail's threads. Please keep her on target. She's the best writer DC has, and if she can just keep her focus we'll see AMAZING, knock-our-spangled-socks-off stories in the Wondie book!

(NOW maybe this blog will get some comments!) (Which reminds me: buy my book! I'm off the DC MBs so I can tout it. http://www.jasminejade.com/p-7215-touch-of-danger.aspx It'll be on Amazon in a few weeks. Buy now! Buy!)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting started in oils and acrylics



Welcome back! Let’s move on to oils and acrylics, shall we?

Oils are called oils because their pigments are mixed with oils and you have to use stuff like turpentine and paint thinner to thin them down. Except for the new water-soluble oils, which actually thin and clean up with water. (Though you should use special additives to get them to flow right.)

Oils take a long time to dry. Count on 6 months to a year to dry all the way through, depending on how thick you paint. Don’t varnish until your painting is dried all the way. It will take a day or two for your painting to become dry to the touch, which allows you to go back within that time and work the paint while it’s still wet as needed.

The new oil alkyds (I love alkyds!) dry all the way through in a month or three. You can paint on your alkyd painting, break for lunch, maybe take a short nap, and when you return to work your painting will be dry to the touch. How handy is that!?

Acrylics thin and clean up with water. They dry very quickly, sometimes TOO quickly for my tastes. Once they’re dry, you can’t go back into them and rework things, like if you want to soften an edge or two or blend something.

That is, unless you get the new ”interactive” acrylics. I’ve got a pile of ‘em in a bin but haven’t worked with them yet. Depending on what you mix with them, you can keep your acrylics “wet” for a few hours. If they dry, there’s a special solvent that opens them up again for reworking. Here’s a manufacturer’s demo: http://www.wonderhowto.com/how-to/video/how-to-blend-and-rework-when-painting-with-acrylics-185602/view/

There’s also a type of paint called “open” acrylics, that have a longer drying time than regular acrylics. They’re like a bizarro alkyd: one (the open acrylic) stays wetter longer, for a working time of a few hours, and the other (alkyds) dries quicker, with a working time of a few hours. With all kinds of acrylics you should wait about 2 weeks after your final brushstroke before you varnish, if you feel the need for such.

Ain’t technology great?

Your brushes for both oils and acrylics will have long handles, because you should be standing back from your canvases as you work. Unless you’re using acrylics as if they were watercolors, which many do, in which case you should be using the short-handled watercolor type of brushes. Robert Burridge attaches long twigs to his handles so he can stand back even farther, but he also uses the occasional mop when he paints as well. He is, after all, Robert Burridge.

Don’t mix your brushes! Once you get oil on a brush, it’s useless for water-based paint. And yes, that applies (I think) to the water-soluble oils. Use pretty kitchen jars to collect each type of brush and the display in your studio will look Very Professional. Visitors will be impressed.

Canvases

Here’s something I only learned lately. I grew up painting with oils on canvases and now everyone’s saying no, canvases have too much “give” in them. Eventually inflexible oils will crack as the canvas surface expands and contracts and generally moves about. Canvases will even alter their tightness when changing altitudes. I’ve heard of artists who’ve had to restretch their canvases when sending them off to mountain galleries. Acrylics remain flexible when they dry, so canvases are fine for them.

People are urging artists to use rigid supports for their oils. That would mean boards, which can be gessoed or covered with canvas to get that familiar canvas texture and then gessoed. You can buy them predone or make them yourself on the cheap.

Acrylics can be used on just about any surface. If you want to get funky and paint on metal or some such, just make sure you prime it first. And acrylics on an oil-based surface--forget it! It’s like using latex acrylic house paint on a wall that’s previously been painted with oil-based paint. The new paint will bubble and/or flake off. Use a primer that’s specially made for that surface or choose a new surface.

Oils you’re going to be buying in tubes. Acrylics come in tubes, jars and squirt bottles. The squirt bottles are for people who are using the paints in a watercolorish way, and contain extremely concentrated pigment.

When I went to art school at Carolina, a teacher (who is still on staff, ahem) had us using a harsh, cheap solvent to thin our oils. When one of his colleagues asked him why he did that, he answered, “Hell, they’re only students.”

This is not the right attitude to take. You should approach your painting as if you were a professional. Even if you’re just foolin’ around, seeing what the paint will do, experimenting with how you’re going to approach your painting, you should use the correct materials.

Thinning and mediums

This is something I’ve recently learned, but it makes sense. If you thin your paint with a solvent you make it weaker in structure. You lose the archival properties of the paint. If you want your paint to flow more easily, use a medium, not a thinner. Thinners/solvents are for cleaning up, for breaking down your paint.

For oils, they make lots of special mediums. (And yes, the correct plural of “medium” in this sense is “mediums.”) You pour a bit into a small cup and keep it next to your palette, and mix a tiny bit in with your paint as you go. You can dip your brush in it every now and then or add it into the piles of paint on your palette. A lot of people use alkyd mediums to speed up the drying time of regular oils. Go to your local art store and start reading labels and asking the staff if they seem intelligent.

You will need to clean your oil materials. Don’t get turpentine! It stinks. It’s bad for the air in your home. Your lungs don’t like it. Get some of the new thinners that are odorless and much safer to use. (You’ll need a small amount of pure turps to add to some kinds of varnishes [not all require this], though, so make sure you know where your store displays them.) (And remember that if you're using water-soluble oils, you clean them with water. That's the whole point!)

For acrylics, there are quite a few confusing additives you can drip into your paints that will accomplish different things. For mediums, though, you can start out with the standard stuff: gloss and mattte medium. For a beginner I’d choose matte. If you want to gloss things up you can put a gloss coat over your painting at the very end. I wouldn’t want to squint through the glare as I was painting.

Colors

As usual, NEVER USE STUDENT-GRADE ANYTHING! Student grade stuff is cheaper because it’s been thinned. Likely it will not be archival.

As you’re choosing your paints, don’t be put off by stuff that says something like “cobalt hue” or “alizarin crimson hue.” You may be aware that if one is cooking one wants to buy pure vanilla and not something that is vanilla flavored, which is a cheap version that won’t stand up to a lot of cooking. But with colors it’s different.

Alizarin crimson, one of my favorite colors, is not archival. It fades. They’ve finally come out with a “hue” version that isn’t by-definition alizarin but is the same color and permanent. Other colors, like the cobalts and such, have look-alike “hues” because the original formula is poisonous. This is why you now see names like I never saw when I was a student, tongue-twisters like “quinacridone” this, and “dioxazine” that.

With acrylics you can also get keen metallics, pearls and stuff. Your store should have color charts for you to drool over. Be aware that “thalo” blue and green are the same thing as “phthalo” or “phthalocyanine” blue or green, which are the same thing as “brand name” blue or green (like Winsor Blue or Green, for the Winsor-Newton brand). “Phthalo” is pronounced with a long “a,” by the way, and silent just about everything else.

What else? What else? My teachers always told me to never ever use black, but that rule is being broken all the time these days. The average artist uses black sparingly. (Your best blacks will be mixed from a deep red and green on your palette.) Just don’t buy a black like Carbon Black, as it’s gritty. It’s called “carbon” because there are bits of carbon in it. Use Ivory Black instead if you MUST use black-black.

I made a mistake once and bought a huge tube of Flake White. This is really transparent stuff. There’s a time and place for it, but they don’t come often. Get Titanium White instead. Get a big tube. You’ll use a LOT.

If you’re using acrylics, a cheap way out is to use white gesso as a white. It’s just as permanent as white paint, but you’ll find it’s not nearly as opaque as Titanium White. Still, because you do use so much white when painting, gesso can save you big bucks.

Speaking of gesso, gesso is a painting base that stabilizes whatever you’re painting on. It comes in a number of colors, the most often used being white. Canvases are primed with gesso. Because it's acrylic you can paint with either oil or acrylic on top.

Although I’ve never used it, every last artist I’ve ever heard of who expressed a preference for gesso said that by far Utrecht gesso was the best. One of these days I’ll try it to see what all the hubbub’s about.

Different pigments of paint have different levels of transparency. Look at your tubes and you’ll see how the different companies indicate this. Sometimes there’s a large dot and it’ll be black, which means opaque, or yellow, which means transparent, or half-and-half, which means somewhere between the two. Sometimes they’ll run the color over some black type--very artistically, you might not even notice it--and that’ll show you how transparent things are.

When you’re trying to mix a good green to cover something up and your color just sits there and lets everything underneath show through, you’ll come to appreciate transparency/opacity ratings.

So what colors do you need? The primaries: yellow, red, blue... and white. They’ll get you through practically anything. As I said, Titanium White’s the way to go. For yellow, try a cadmium yellow, either medium or light, or something else in that area. Cadmium Red Medium is a solid red, or something that looks near it. Blues... I love blues. Choose from cobalt or ultramarine or cerulean or thalo, whatever hits your button. For extra colors, I’d pick up a yellow ochre, burnt sienna, burnt umber, and some kind of green and bluish red, like dear alizarin or a rose red.

The theory is to have your white and then warm and cool versions of the primaries: red, yellow, blue. Warm means yellowish tones. Cool means bluish. We’ll be getting into that later on. For now, though, you don’t really need to have the full range. You can operate very nicely with four colors. Lots of artists like to limit their palettes that way. And with a limited palette it’s extremely hard (if not impossible) to come up with colors that don’t belong in your painting.

Oh! Almost forgot! Palettes:
For oil when I'm in the studio I work on a glass surface. On the road, I get disposable paper palettes. I've seen the wooden palettes but IMHO they are a pain to clean.

For acrylic you can use either of these but if you've got a few extra bucks, spring for the new specialized acrylic palettes. Mine is a whole palette-within-a palette deal where I can pull out dishes and bins and still have two flat palette surfaces to work on. When I'm ready to quit painting for the day, I just load everything I've used up into the contraption, add a bit of moist sponge, and seal things up. It's like Tupperware. You can come back in a week and your paint will still be wet. How cool is that?!!!

There! Next time we might actually start painting something.

Got a question? ASK!!! If I can’t answer it, I’ll try to find someone who can.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How to Write a Book

I'll be alternating this topic every Sunday (or so) with my "How to Paint" blog. Hope you enjoy and take home something new to think about!

I mean, it's not like I'm a NYT best-selling author or anything. My only claim to literary fame is one ebook. So far. But over the years I have learned an awful lot about writing, stuff that I keep hearing repeated to newbies who haven't yet figured it out.

So you want to write a book. I am going to make the assumption that you have a story to tell. Hopefully it isn't a fanfic story.

I get into trouble talking with folks about fanfic. These days there's actually a market for SOME teeny tiny proportion of fanfic, but if one writes only fanfic, one develops lazy writing habits.

Fanfic comes with characters, situation, theme, dialogue patterns, entire world, etc. already established by someone(s) else. Thus the writer never gets to exercise their literary muscles in these areas. That's why I'd like to ease you off the teat of fanfic, if that's where you're attached, and point you toward building your own stories.

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
--W. Somerset Maugham

I'd like to disagree with that. I'd say there is one rule: KEEP YOUR READERS WITHIN YOUR STORY.

An oral storyteller once told my writing group about a man who lived long ago in India. We learned about the lazy man and his situation in life, learned about his busy, frustrated wife, but most of all saw the man as he listened to another storyteller, a traveller who had come to town for a few days, telling him the tale of a beautiful princess who was locked in a tower away from her True Love. This man got so involved in the story that when someone in it took a key that would have released the princess from her captivity and threw it in the ocean, the storyteller raised the story question to the crowd of listeners: Who would dive after the key to retrieve it? The man in the crowd stood up, announced, "I will!" and dived into the story's ocean to save the princess so she could return to her True Love.

THAT'S how far into the story you want your reader to get.

This means you'll have to establish interior continuity: your world-building (even a story set in Manhattan needs world-building) must be consistent. So must your characters and how they speak and react to their world. If you establish that this is a story set in the ordinary world, you can't throw in a fantasy element to save the day at the end. If you're going to have fantasy, you must establish that up front.

This is called the "contract with the reader." What this means is that within a few short paragraphs of the beginning of your story, you tell your reader what kind of story they have in their hands. Is it a war story? A mystery? Chick lit? Fantasy? Sci fi? Is it going to be funny or deadly serious, or something between those two extremes?

How do you do this? Not by presenting an outline of your intent to the reader, but rather by using tone and introducing concepts. Your title and cover will be a big clue, but you will have to cover this in your writing as well. Is this a mystery? Your atmosphere will be dark and mysterious, you'll probably use a lot of detail in your description (so as to hide clues within all the minutiae), and there'll probably be a body showing up somewhere in the first chapter. A fantasy? Why, that white rabbit will make an appearance and announce straight off that he's late. Historical? Everyone will be riding on horses or dying from some plague, and there'll be a castle or Almacks in the distance. Chick lit? (note: Chick lit is dead. Buh-bye. It's now a small subset of "women's fiction.") The narrative could very well be set in first person with a bubbly voice, and there will be shoes and/or a tiresome ex-boyfriend (or memories of such) lurking. The setting will quite likely be in New York City.

You begin to set your interior continuity so your reader knows what to expect, so they can sink into the literal trance that a well-crafted story can produce.

If I may, I'd like to point out the current run of Wonder Woman. It's written by a skilled, terrific writer, and she seems to have a very definite idea of who Wonder Woman is. (At last, a writer who Gets It!) The problem is: WW readers have seen WW through so many changes in approach, venue and circumstance that because this writer hasn't started out with a solid definition of her WW's world (which also equals circumstances) we aren't sure what's going on or what's possible. When we get plot points thrown at us that normally we might be wild about, instead we rise up out of the waters in which we've been immersed and say, "Huh?"

For instance, this writer is keen on investigating what the Magic Lasso can do. We discover that only Diana can control the Magic Lasso in any way.

Yet readers have seen a slew of others utilize it in the past. Huh? What's going on? I don't understand! We're out of the story!

As she introduces the Magic Lasso in her story the writer has failed to set up a situation in which she can say in some literary fashion, "As of now, the Magic Lasso is going to function this way. Forget the times in the past that you've seen it used in other ways. They aren't part of this new world we're operating in." (And yes, this switch to new operating worlds, or soft reboots, is common in superhero comics. Especially with WW, new writers often find a way to throw out or contradict their predecessors' work, both positive and negative. Readers can accept it if it provides them with interesting stories and characters.) (I've even seen it presented as a blatant editorial narrative: "Readers! From now on, we're throwing out the idea of X and from now on we'll be operating on idea Y instead!" I rather think that your own definitions of the various concepts of your world will be ever so much more subtle than that.)

You don't want your readers questioning things in the middle of your story. Or even worse, at the end when all heck is breaking loose and you want them holding your book with white knuckles, breathlessly waiting for how it's all going to turn out.

So plan how your world operates, how your characters operate, etc. Get a vivid picture of it in your mind. Post pertinent pictures. Burn evocative candles. Some people actually make dioramas or collages of their novels that utilize symbols and motifs they wish to keep in mind. Some people interview their characters, pieces that will never see print but clarify the character to the writer. Some people set up their offices (or nooks where they write) specifically to get them in the right groove for whatever they're writing. I've heard people who simultaneously are writing two different kinds of books, say that to switch from one to the other they bring in a large screen decorated with an atmosphere-invoking fabric when they're doing one genre, and then they store it away, leaving their office with another ambiance when they're working on the other novel. Some people have to utilize two entirely different offices (work and home).

Do what works for YOU.

As you write, things will morph into something different. Better. Bigger. Some of them will begin to instruct YOU as to what they're doing. (Remember: YOU are in control! If they want to lead the story to a place you do not want to go, remind them of who's boss.) Very often you'll finish your story's first draft and discover that you need to go back and reshape things in order to focus your story more sharply, but you'll do so keeping everything consistent within this new draft.

You'll have an easier time if you sit down at the beginning and really think about how all the little pieces of the story you're building fit together. Believe me, it will save you a lot of aspirin and pulled hair.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pass the popcorn!

video

Here it is! My first attempt at making a video, much less a book video. If you want to watch it on YouTube, the url is:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obLNAPBbOGY

Hopefully by the time the next book is published (here I come, Lulu!), I'll have enough add-ons to iMovie that I can get it to do something I want it to do, rather than try a PhotoShop workaround. It also didn't help that this was the first time I'd ever used the video function on my camera. Next time I'll get better shots and won't have to use the cheesy keyhole effect to crop out stuff.

Welcome to the Art School!

Welcome to the first installment of my “how to paint” blog! I’m going to be alternating this with “how to write a book” and will try to post every Sunday or so. We're not starting off too well since it's Monday, but I was working all day yesterday on my very first book video. (Which you'll see here tomorrow.)

SO YOU WANT TO PAINT, huh? Terrific! What do you want to paint? Portraits? Landscapes? Florals? Abstracts?

Focus first. (You can always change your mind later.)

Which painters/paintings have really hit you over the head in the past, dazzling you so you exclaimed, “I want to paint like that!” and dreamed of the work afterward? Have there been really different styles that caught your eye? What do they have in common? Maybe you liked the colors they used or the way they used them or maybe the style. Maybe you like that they were different. There’s nothing that says you have to paint the same way all the time. (But try focusing in these beginning stages and get the basics down.)

First of all, you’re going to have to get materials so you can start to paint. There are a lot more things to paint with these days then back when I was an art student in college. You can use colored pencils and pastels, but I don’t know much about those so I’m going to ignore them. La la la, I can’t HEAR you!

That leaves us with the three major media for painting: watercolor, acrylics, and oils.

WATERCOLORS

Now, technically acrylics are watercolors because you use water to work with them. To differentiate, sometimes watercolors are called “aquarelles,” but most of the time watercolors are "watercolors."

Watercolors are fun because you can accomplish one with very little investment. You can travel with watercolors since they’re non-toxic (for the most part; read the label!) and airlines won’t think you’re a terrorist by packing awful solvents in your luggage. They dry quickly. If you’re working on paper you can stack a bunch together for storage and they won’t take up much space.

They do have a reputation of being difficult. I think it’s more of an attitude adjustment that painters from other mediums have to make. Once you get the swing of watercolor and figure out how to approach things (which are kinda opposite what you do in other mediums), you should enjoy watercolors. Oh—they do tend to be rather unforgiving, but there are ways to correct watercolors if you make a mistake. Don’t forget that the term “happy mistakes” probably was first coined by a watercolorist! Mistakes can be GOOD.

You need to remember that even though your watercolors will dry, they won't be protected for all eternity unless you do something to them, like put them under glass or use one of the new spray varnishes that are made for watercolors. Otherwise if you happen to sneeze near them or perhaps Fido comes in from the rain and shakes off near your watercolor--uh oh!

PALETTE

You can buy your WCs in little tins like you did in kindergarten, but I think most watercolorists get tubes. This means that you’ll need a palette to hold everything. Don’t worry if your paint dries on it; a little water will make it spring back to life. When you first get your stuff out to sit down to paint, spritz your WCs with a few drops of water so they'll be nice and moist for you by the time you lift your brush.

Which reminds me: NEVER GET “STUDENT” GRADE PAINT! In any medium! This is cheaper than the other stuff because it’s been thinned down. You need to use more to get the same effect you get from pro grade. Grit your teeth and resolve to stick with the non-student grades.

*** “STUDENT” ANYTHING WILL NOT BE ARCHIVAL! ***

Also be advised that watercolors dry lighter than the color you apply. Acrylics dry darker. Oils stay the same. Don't know why; it just is.

Be advised that the cheap plastic (and very portable) palettes will make your colors bead up when you’re trying to mix them. The expensive (and heavy) porcelain ones will allow the colors to sit in a nice puddle. Both will get the job done.

BRUSHES

With watercolor you’ll need watercolor brushes. Make sure they’re made for WC. These brushes will usually have shorter handles than oil/acrylic brushes. I think that’s because you’re expected to work up close with WC, but that’s not necessarily the case. WC brushes also need to be able to hold a lot of paint so you can get large areas of washes in. People will tell you to go with the expensive ones that use animal hair, but a lot of the new artificial stuff will do just fine, especially for a beginner. Plus there are animal hair/artificial mixes that are terrific and won’t completely drain your wallet.

Don't mix your WC brushes with your oil brushes. You get a little oil on 'em and you'll never be able to use them for WC again.

You'll need a large brush to do large washes. What size paper are you using? Use a size that'll go with that. And you'll need a rigger (buy more than one), which has really long, thin bristles that make for doing details and SIGNING YOUR NAME a lot easier. Note: brushes will be your biggest cost in WC. Look for specials.

PAPER TEXTURES

Watercolor paper is what you paint on, for the most part. It comes with two things to look for: “press” and weight.
• Hot-pressed paper is really smooth, almost slick. I find it hard to control. Definitely not for beginners!
• Rough paper is exactly that: really rough. Try some of both after you get the hang of watercolor.
• Cold-pressed paper has a moderate “tooth” to it, and is something I prefer, certainly best for a beginner to use.

PAPER WEIGHT (no, not paperweight)

WC paper that comes in 140 pound or thereabouts weight will need to be stretched, which means that you soak the paper and tape it to a board while it’s still wet so it won’t buckle up as you’re painting.

Now, I know the modern thing is merely to clip the dry paper to a board, but I still have my doubts about that. Instead, if I get 140 lb paper I get it in “blocks” that are glued on all 4 sides, which is sorta pre-stretching. It still buckles a bit, but not badly. To release the paper (after everything’s bone dry), you take a palette knife or some thin, dull metal something like a clean butter knife, and insert it in the tiny section on the side that is NOT glued. Then you carefully run the metal around the paper, freeing it from the glue. Ta dah!

If you go for the heavy paper, like 300 lb, you won’t need to stretch anything.

And oh dear, everything’s going metric. A 140 lb paper may be labeled 300 gsm (that’s grams per square meter). That’d make 300 lb paper something like 542 gsm or such.

Make sure your paper is archival quality, so it won't yellow on you as the months go by. "100% rag" used to be the standard to get, but these days they're developing new materials from the oddest things. At the very least, look for "acid free" and a major brand.

If you buy WC paper by the sheet, you’ll find it usually comes in 22x30” size. You can use a half-sheet or even a quarter sheet and be considered “standard” area. Store the paper flat and away from water and dirt. Don’t let anything hard rest on it, or you’ll see those creases appear like magic the first wash you apply. (There are even artists who insist on doing washes by pouring paint rather than brushing it on because the soft bristles will leave marks on the paper.)

OTHER SURFACES

Nowadays we even have watercolor canvas. This is primarily for ease in selling your painting. If you do a watercolor on canvas and use the new varnishes that work with WC, the theory is that the buyer won’t have to then mat and frame the painting under glass, which makes things heavy and the process convoluted. I’ve heard one WC canvas proponent swear that you can wash all color off a WC canvas and be able to start again like it was new. This claim is absolutely false. But it is easier to correct mistakes by washing off color on a canvas than paper, though it can certainly be done on paper (the heavier the better).

There are also watercolor boards. These are pretty neat. Consider them pre-stretched paper that has a solid back. Used with a suitable spray-on UV varnish (check your label!), they can also be plunked into a frame without glass. Or with. (These days a lot of people are saying that EVERYTHING should be under glass to protect it from pollution!)

Note: NEVER clean a watercolor painting by spritzing cleanser on the glass that covers it! The cleaner can seep under the glass and dissolve the color. Spritz the cleaner on a rag, and then use the rag to clean. Or do as I do, and never clean anything. It lets others feel superior and makes the world a better place.

Whew! A lot of info for this first column, and I’ll make it worse by saying that I’m not going to teach anything about actual WC painting, at least until I get back into it more. There are lots of videos and books out there that are outstanding. Hm. I think I’d start with Tom Lynch’s Watercolor Secrets. Oh, and his 100 Watercolor Workshop Lesson Charts are a great add-on. He’s also got a bunch of videos. He’s a very good teacher and has a lot of experience teaching on TV, plus he’s one o’ them Big Name Watercolorists so he actually knows what he’s doing. Start with him and then discover others. www.tomlynch.com

Happy painting!

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Writer's Frustration

A lot of you know that Star-Crossed, the sequel to Touch of Danger, was turned down by Cerridwen. In a way, that's a good thing, as sales for ToD have not been earth-shattering.
http://www.jasminejade.com/p-7215-touch-of-danger.aspx

My take? Number one, that the publisher doesn't promote Cerridwen a fraction of the way it promotes Ellora's Cave, whose books are XXX. Number two, that XXX ebooks are the ones that sell. Number three, that the vast majority of my books, including S-C, are not XXX. Number four, that print publishers have radically powered down their lines. So number five is: either find a small press publisher who's willing to take on an odd-genre book with occasional odd philosophical/relationship forays and is a sequel to a book published by another publisher...or self-publish.

I've had positive rejection letters from several publishers. They think the book has merit but their lines have no place for it.

One of our writers here at PHE, Inc. is an enthusiastic Lulu author, though when you try to pin him down (politely and delicately, as the subject should be approached) as to sales and such, he starts to admit matters aren't exactly on a level with the NYT best-selling list (which he's been on). A friend of mine has self-pubbed several books of romantic NC fiction but she taught that it was a lot of work and you had to visit bookshops constantly to push your titles. I'm not a pushy kind of person. I'm your basic writer-type: shy and withdrawn.

At this point I don't have any idea if Touch is going to see actual paper-print, and I can't get anyone to tell me yes or no. If it does, it will be another year, so I have time if I'm going the Lulu route with the sequels to think and prepare. I'm actually getting kind of excited about being able to do some Frazetta-style covers. (Anyone know some Frazetta-type people who'd model for some photos for me?) The visual impact of the four finished sequels with F-style covers (ooh, that sounds dirty!) presented together might sell a lot of books, methinks.

In the meantime, I'm shopping other titles around to a number of markets. One novel has been quite funny in that it gets extremely enthusiastic rejections. They love, love, love the book, but there's no place for it in their lines. Right now it's sitting in the Baen slush pile, which they say takes a year to go through, so I'll be sending it around simultaneously to other places. (Trying to sort through the garbage in my office [I'm cleaning it!] to see if Chris Keeslar has seen this in the past few years.)

And I've got one in the Harlequin/Mills & Boon slush pile. It's an excellent book (if I may say so myself), just an odd historical time period and place, with no lords and no ladies in sight. (It received an award in a writing contest a few years ago.)

What I'm hoping for is ultimately to wind up in eprint, self-print, and print-print (did I mention movies and/or TV maxiseries?), becoming a Modern Renaissance Writer. (A modern RICH Renaissance Writer.) Yeah, that's me! Carol A. Strickland, the symbol of the 21st Century writer.

So what do you do when your book is rejected? What do you think of Lulu & co? Of course it's the wave of the future, but right now--? Anyone out there published in different media? How do you like it?

And I need opinions on how I should be sending Touch of Danger out for review. Cerridwen says they send it to x reviewers (there are a LOT), but so far I've only seen one review (5 hearts out of a possible 5!). How does one re-send a book for review? Do any of you do this? Is a query letter: "Did you receive my book for review from Cerridwen?" enough or too pushy or what?

Ah, learning this business is such an educational experience! But I wish I'd graduate already.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Learnin' as Fast as I Can



So I signed up for classes at Art of the Carolinas. These past 2 years I've tried not to sign up for everything since when I do I not only go broke, I get absolutely frenzied. I want to relax and enjoy these classes, especially now that I know pretty much who's a good teacher and who is not.

But I kept thinking about the class I didn't sign up for: Abstract Landscapes. I've been trying to learn abstraction and will be taking classes in that, so I thought: landscapes. Add some atmospheric perspective and the occasional tree and do them in earth colors. Right?

So I've been working on some, trying my hand. The first one is taken from a series of photos I took on my way back from Les Parents last month. The highway department keeps all kinds of wildflowers blooming along the highways, and at the rest stops they seemed to have planted all daylilies.



This second one is from a series of exercises I did per Bob Burridge, where you do several small sketches and then try to work up something larger from a sketch you liked. Don't know if I like the sketch better than the larger painting or not, but here it is. I'm saving a larger canvas board for the sketch that I REALLY liked, even though it scares me because it's rather simple. I'm calling this "French Broad" because it kind of sorta reminds me of the F.B. River up in the mountains, or it's got a mountainish/riverish feel to it.

Gotta be getting around to doing a painting for the NC State Fair soon, though. I'm entertaining ideas for suitable subjects! Last year I did a barnyard with two guys and two dogs and an ancient pickup and got Honorable Mention. This year: maybe something not so farmer-ish? Although I still have lots of reference photos from Lloyd's dairy farm, the place I used for last year's pic. The year before I did a pretty Hillsborough house that had lots of flowers, and got a red ribbon. What subject should I paint? (Be aware that abstracts rarely do well in the State Fair.)

PS: Have you sent off your postcards asking DC Comics to renumber Wonder Woman to where she should be?