Friday, November 20, 2009

Time for Art of the Carolinas!

So it was the second weekend (and the two days before) in November, and time for ART OF THE CAROLINAS!

Jerry’s Artarama likes to bill this as the biggest event of its kind in the world. What it is, is 4 days of workshops, lots given by famous artists and/or artists who really know their stuff (and some not so much), and 3 days of a trade floor that is pure Christmas for artists. We get to see all the latest products--and they’re coming out with SO MUCH these days--and we get to see people on the floor demonstrating them, or barring that, get to talk with experts about technical stuff.

Last year after being completely ignored several times by Winsor & Newton’s website as to a technical question, I was able to ask a guy at the W&N booth about how to make sure that when I reworked an old oil painting the new paint wouldn’t cause any problems. (You know, flake off or something.) A relatively high-ranking member of the company, he had a definite opinion about that but also leaned around the corner to his right and caught the attention of two other folks who knew even more about the chemical makeup of oil paints. I was able to walk away with a confident game plan! That plus he took my story of not getting feedback off the website extremely seriously and said that he would take it up with the people who needed to improve things when he got back.

This year, Thursday began with me getting a late start from the house for my 9:00 class. I don't speed. I kept recalling how a psychic lecturer had once told us how she liked to “time” herself--slip around regular time--when she drove. She said she had driven to our class (this was back when I was in psychic school) from the deeps of Quebec to Durham, NC in 8 hours. A couple of times in my life it had seemed that I’d been able to “time” drives, so I tried to do it now.

And I pulled up at the hotel with 15 minutes to spare. You tell me.

Amazingly, AotC wasn’t quite ready for business yet. Usually they’ve got schedules up on the wall: which classes are meeting where, etc. This time: zippo was ready. This year the hotel opened up two small ballrooms (which are usually part of the trade floor) for classrooms, and we arrived to find a few tables in place and plastic on the floor, but nothing else. Staff, teachers and attendees had to work quickly to get things organized and separation walls put up between us and the next classroom.

Anyway, the all-day class (until 4) was “Abstract Impressionism” with local artist Joe DiGiulio. FABulous!!! It took me deeper into the techniques than I’d gotten so far and gave me a lot of confidence to experiment. We students luxuriated in having entire tables to ourselves (usually Jerry’s crams us 3 to a table, and the tables are only about 24 inches deep). Guess it pays to have an instructor who’s married to the lady who puts the show together?

Anyway, great fun and I got 3 solid paintings out of it. The last one was the largest and on canvas. While I painted the first layer background I kept getting a certain impression of what it reminded me of. “Uh oh,” I said, but went for broke anyway.

Halfway through the spangles Joe came around to look. “Channeling Jasper Johns?” he asked.

“Wonder Woman,” I replied.

Needless to say, this is the painting at the top of the blog. It's 20" square, painted on wrap-around canvas. Here are the two others I did during the morning session, both about 12x9 or 9x12, depending on which way you look at ‘em:

The drive home was horrendous. We’d been under Tropical Depression Ida for a few days, and she wasn’t letting up. It was driving rain, wind, darkness, exhaustion, and rush hour all the way across three counties. Ugh! Let me repeat: ugh, ugh, ugh!

Friday I attended my job, which was knee-deep in (sale!) catalog as well as our regular packages. I’d come in the previous Sunday to work, and with that managed to finish everything that had a deadline that day. Whew!

Saturday I ran a bit early leaving from home, despite having to pack for an overnight stay. (It’s my once-a-year luxury.) I stopped for gas and debated the time. I was going to drop by Lowe’s to return a bit that my gas man hadn’t needed in installing the new gas logs, but decided that I shouldn’t push my luck. I arrived at the hotel a very comfortable 25 minutes ahead of class time and snagged a staff person to tell me where my class was.

This time was also an all-day class, but now was something like “bold acrylics as watercolor using interactive acrylics.” I was interested in both acrylics used as watercolors (I’m terrible at watercolors and desperately need more practice!) and in interactives, of which I’d purchased a sample pack last year and never opened.

On Thursday I’d run into an expert in acrylics who told me that (1) he hated interactives, (2) he hated the interactives manufacturer, and (3) he hated the interactives salespeople. Uh oh! I tried taking it with a few grains of salt.

There were only two of us students in this weekend class. Weekend classes sell out first. Always. That little alarm at the back of my head began to buzz even louder.

Our instructor had laid out several sample paintings. They looked like third graders had done them, blops of color placed across the page in a line. At one point during the class our instructor told us that in his whole life he’d sold maybe two paintings. I asked myself, “Why am I shelling out big bucks for this guy to teach me?”

I’m sorry, but even if it were true and I was teaching a class, if they asked me how my art business was going, I’d tell ‘em that I’d recently had a one-woman show at Windsor Palace. I mean, let ‘em fact-check me afterward. I have a professional impression to make as I teach!

Needless to say, my acrylic watercolors looked like crap, though I got praise for technique and color. The final painting was pretty much copying off of what the instructor had done as he tried out a completely new kind of board to him (and made us do the same!) (ca-ching down the drain! I mean, having your class try out materials you’re unfamiliar with when you’re trying to teach them? Ooh, such a rotten idea!). That painting I might be able to salvage and sell, I dunno. I haven’t finished it yet:

The instructor seemed to be a really nice guy. He told amusing stories and was the kind of person you like spending time with just talking. He was very enthusiastic as well. An excellent sketcher. But he needs to come up with another way to present his class. The only thing I really learned was (1) never ever to use that kind of board again, and (2) that interactives, used in a watercolor manner, stay wet a little longer than regular acrylics and that’s IT. You can’t really “open” them (the whole point of interactives, right?) on watercolor paper the way you can on canvas when you’re painting in an oil paint manner.

Whatever. I raced out of class to pick up my goodie bag (which I hadn’t gotten on Thursday), an event tee shirt, and to do a quick recon of the trade floor before it closed for the night on Saturday. Sundays are always the best day to shop. You get bargains, though you also run the risk of things selling out.

Tried Bahama Breeze next to the Hilton for dinner. Got in right away and had a nice meal if a tad pricey. Was able to demonstrate my Kindle to a curious waitress who had one on her Christmas list. Went back to my hotel room, which meant I also avoided the last of the night rain on I-40, hurrah!

AotC is the one consistent time of the year when I spend a night in a real hotel and order room service for breakfast. I get a clean room, clean bathroom, a mattress that doesn’t come in the shape of a “U,” lots of pillows, and a TV I can watch from either a comfy chair or the bed. The North Raleigh Hilton was certainly classier than the Homestead Inn I’d been staying at up to last year during AotC, and it was handy being just above the show.

I hadn’t noticed anything wrong with the room when I checked in. When I returned from dinner there was a definite chill in the air. On rare occasions I get these chill episodes, so perhaps it was that, but I never heard the heat turn on that evening but the constant fan from the heating unit meant that something was still functioning and maybe the heat itself was completely silent. I turned the heat up. Nothing. Since there was nothing on TV (why didn’t they carry Comedy Central, which I’d counted on for Saturday entertainment?) I curled up in a cold bed and read a very good Dave Barry book on my Kindle. Thank goodness there was a spare blanket in the closet. At one point I considered using the extra towels as blankets as well.

COLD! I kept hitting the thermostat and zippo happened. Finally about 2 AM there was a click at the thermostat, an answering click from the heater, and suddenly the room went equatorial. I had to throw off all covers, as well as the sheet.

By 5:30 AM the heat was finally acting normal. Whew!

One of the perks of an annual hotel trek is ordering room service for a nice fattening breakfast. The hell with price; bring my breakfast to my door! And make sure there's a cute metal dome over the main plate. Mine arrived right on time. They got part of the order wrong, but not the main part. They did eventually bring me tea (I’d used up all the tea that came with the room the previous evening) but forgot any sweetener. Good thing I’d packed some. But the eggs were flat and tasteless. It should be a crime to cook bacon so it tastes awful. The cranberry juice was definitely watered down. I was surprised it was still red. Good tea. I hate to think how much I paid for a little over a cup of hot water, which was all they furnished with the tray. (Heated up some more in my room’s coffee maker.)

Took a nap to make up for the night before and just because I could. Ah, decadence!

Well, that claim to luxury eventually ran its course. Checked out, packed the car tightly so as to make sure I had as much room as possible for what I was going to buy, and waited a few minutes for the trade floor to open. Went through and grabbed the stuff I’d zeroed in on the night before.

Figured out that the way to tell if that Steven Quiller DVD was the same one that I had on VHS, was not to ask the staff at his table--they had no idea--or try to track down the artist himself (though I did pass him in the hall when leaving), but rather to look at the copyright date. Bingo: 2003. I passed on that one and bought the other. After all, Steven Quiller is a god. When I grow up, I want to paint a lot like him. Not exactly, but with the same kind of color ‘tude, simplicity and ease.

Went over to the Matisse brand table and found Joe DG there working (it was in Jerry’s section). Bought some Matisse colored gessos that he’d recommended and he pointed out the cheap but nice Titanium White from Lukas that he likes to use especially for large projects.

In his workshop we’d done his “Black Bag” exercise, in which he gives students a small bag with a few implements and brushes, and then dishes out two colors and a bit of white and tells them to paint. We got a goldish-orange color that was named after an Australian tree (or maybe that was another color), and a bluish green that was called “Southern Ocean.” You see, Matisse is located in Australia so everything is named after Australian stuff. Joe pointed out that “Southern Ocean” had the same color formulation as Thalo Blue (Turquoise), so it’s all marketing, right? The Australian tree sure looked and acted a lot like Quin Gold to me, though I didn’t get a chance to compare formulation codes (which are listed on labels by law).

Hint: Joe told us he liked to use opposite colors on the color wheel but tweaked the idea to use the ones that are just off being primaries. This adds subtlety to paintings. So instead of blue and orange, he kicked the color to a greenish blue and a reddish orange (that turned goldy when diluted). Worked terrifically!

Then I aimed myself at (1) mats. Joe had told us to think of the entire process of framing from a cohesive economics standpoint. Buy the pre-cut available mats to determine (2) what size paper you’ll work on, and then buy (3) frames to fits the mats. So I got a few packs of cheap ones and larger ones as well, hoping they’d fit what I’ve already done at home. Got a block of W/C paper (from Steven Quiller, who was having a very nice sale) and some cheap but okay frames.

Over at the Burning Tree Studios desk they were doing BOGO DVDs. It was difficult to find a second one. I’ve already got a handful at home of good ones, plus a handful of just awful ones, I mean, ptui! Told them that they needed to make sure there were “next” buttons in the gallery sections of their DVDs (the girl was astounded that there weren’t, but there aren’t, not always) (she dutifully took notes to pass along to TPTB) (I love AotC! It’s the direct line to God), and found a second DVD that looked interesting.

Grabbed a few other things and began to think about lunch. The hotel dining room was finishing up brunch and didn’t serve lunch. The hotel’s sports restaurant wouldn’t open until 12 (it was almost that), at which time the entire convention crush would descend along with overdressed Sunday outsiders. Went out to walk and stretch the legs that hadn’t seen much exercise in a few days. Walked past Bahama Breeze, but didn’t want to do that two days in a row. The next place was Denny’s.

Ordered a breakfast from Denny's despite having had a similar one at the hotel early that morning. Did I say “similar”? This one was lovely! Delicious! Cheap! Ahh. I’m so glad there’s no Denny's near my house. I’d go broke and gain about 100 pounds in no time.

Got back to the hotel in time to read Dave Barry a few more minutes and then staked my claim for my place in the afternoon class in Art Marketing, given by wild n crazy Bob Burridge and his wife.

(Sorry, Bob. Next time I'll bring my non-blurry camera and wait for a good pose.)

MAAAN! OMG! They stuffed us full of marketing know-how and hints of how to step out into the Real World of Art as a true Professional. I bought the updated version of their marketing book that I’d bought years ago. When they come through Raleigh again (they usually hit us a couple times a year) I hope Bob will be giving his two-day version of the workshop because it seems there’s an AWFUL lot more I need to know!

So the Burridge and DiGiulio classes were abfab, completely worth the price and more. I should be able to sell significantly more than I have after taking these classes. And (hee hee) Bob told us that we should never, EVER sell off eBay. When I arrived home (kitties were fine!) my computer informed me that I’d just sold a painting there. Think I’ll try selling the early, not-quite-up-to-snuff stuff there until the end of the year, at which point I’ll become a Professional Arteest and turn up my nose at the site in relation to fine art.

How long is it until next November? I loves me that Art of the Carolinas!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Moravian sugar cake recipe

This is a kind of coffee cake. If you can't go to Old Salem to buy a freshly-made cake, and if you can't wait for your order to arrive off of , here's a recipe that's quicker than the other one I have that requires you to bake the potatoes first.

1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. instant mashed potato flakes
1/4 c. instant nonfat dry milk powder
1 tsp. salt
3/4 c. hot water
12 Tbsp. melted butter or margarine, divided
2 eggs
1 envelope active dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water
4 c. flour
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon

In a large bowl, combine granulated sugar, potato flakes, milk powder and salt. Mix well. Stir in hot water and 6 Tbsp. melted butter; beat in eggs.

In small bowl, sprinkle yeast over warm water. Allow to stand for a few minutes to soften. Stir until dissolved; add to mixture to that of large bowl.

Add flour, one cup at a time, stirring well after each addition until smooth. Cover bowl. Let rise in warm, draft-free place until dough has doubled in bulk (approx. 1 1/2 hour). Stir down; place in a greased jelly roll pan. With lightly greased hands, pat out dough, evenly covering bottom of pan. Cover and allow to rise again until dough doubles in bulk (45 min).

Meanwhile, mix brown sugar and cinnamon. When dough is ready, create mini-pockets by pressing lightly floured fingers into it at 1 1/2-inch intervals. Sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon mixture over surface evenly. (Note: I usually make a bit more topping because I'm a pig.) Drizzle with remaining melted butter.

Bake at 350° for 20 min. or until cake appears golden and center is firm to the touch. Cool for five minutes. Cut into squares and serve.

Recipe makes 12 portions. Moravian sugar cake tastes its best when served fresh from the oven, but also freezes well. Wrap leftovers in foil and freeze. Just make sure you serve it warm.


Stepping Back in Time...and Out on a Ledge!

I was so proud of myself! For once I hadn't made my hotel reservation six weeks (if not six months) in advance. Of course, that was because I was waiting to see how the weather played out during my week's vacation...

This was to be the beginning of getting reference photos and sketches for a "scenic NC" painting series. Old Salem (located in Winston-Salem) was closed on Mondays. The weather report indicated that the sunny day of the week would be Thursday, followed by a partly-cloudy Friday. Armed with a new car player for my new iPod Nano, plus a few Pepto pills because I was a tad queasy, I set off.

Found my hotel after taking the exit after the one I was supposed to. It was definitely okay. My room was supposed to have been $130, but I got an AAA/AARP discount for $78. They never asked to see my card. Never checked my picture ID when I presented my CC either.

Hotel customers had to park in the back, which had a stairway to connect it to the hotel. Where was the handicap-accessible entry, I wondered. The rooms wing was connected to the conference wing by another flight of stairs, this time with a strange handrailing that looked like some kind of automation was in place, maybe perhaps. Weird.

When I left, ambulance personnel were trying to get their empty gurney up that flight of stairs. They needed help to do so. When I stood in line at check-out, one of the hotel people had to WAIT (I motioned for him to go ahead) to get the key to unlock the mechanism that would allow them to affix a pallet to the railing so they could load the gurney onto that for their return journey.

How awful is that?

The hotel folks had assured me that Old Salem was 2 1/2 blocks from them, easy walking distance. It turned out that the Old Salem historic district was about five blocks from them at its nearest, but that the business end of OS with all the exhibits and stuff was a few miles away. Glad I took the car.

Old Salem, a restored village clustered around Salem Academy, is a town the Moravians founded when an offshoot of that sect came to NC from PA. Guides dress in historic costumes and many buildings are open to show what life was like way back when. Centuries alternate: 18th Century one day and 19th Century the next. Some buildings are open during the 18th Century and others only open during the 19th.

If you want to tour the buildings and get all the lectures, the cost is about $20. You can walk around for free (which of course is what I chose to do).

The oddest part of it all is that, way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I attended Salem Academy for 6 weeks one summer as part of NC Governor's School. I had absolutely no recollection of Old Salem except the sugar cake and the nauseating smell of the tobacco factories downtown. Walking around the Academy just a bit, I had little memory of it. The dorms all looked alike; I couldn't recognize the one I stayed in, much less which building I had French in. Maybe it was all too traumatic? I hit myself on the head. I'd stayed practically all summer in my room, when there was all this interesting STUFF out there to walk around to see! Duhh!

But Old Salem was delightful. There were only three school buses in the visitor center, school was in session, and so there were few families with children about. I strolled for four hours to my heart's content, and there were public restrooms available for when the Pepto didn't quite work as well as it should have.

I really should have looked at the gardens more carefully. They had all ranges of gardens to show what the town as a whole would have raised, to what individual houses would have, to what the Single Brothers would be growing, etc. (The Moravians housed their unmarried people in dormitories.)

The Salem Tavern only required a 15-minute wait for lunch, during which I was regaled by stories from one party who talked about their worldly trah-vels and Mercedes Benzes and such. My table opened up and I was led into a room with another couple eating, and then a party of eight women from some local club. They talked loudly about how they were going to split the check (the menu clearly stated one table, one check, but they managed to talk the waitress into two checks). It was money, money before they were served, then one woman complained at great volume that her German potato salad was just roasted potatoes, money, potatoes, money, potatoes, then they got the check and it was money money money and then a little more about the potatoes. What a lovely lunch they must have had! (One of the ladies came up to me as they were leaving and said she hoped they hadn't been too loud.)

As for me, I was presented with a bread bowl containing a light-as-air wheat roll and a tiny pumpkin muffin that obliterated everything with a heavenly waft of cinnamon, ginger and pumpkin. The tavern knew how to make real iced tea, just perfectly right, ahhh. I ordered the blackened chicken salad, thinking that was the safest thing stomach-wise and most healthy item. It was covered with sinus-clearing spices. Okay, sue me. I'd never had blackened anything before. I didn't know. But it was lovely!

(I heard two non-money/potato comments from the other ladies: that the chicken pot pie was presented beautifully and the pot roast was delicious.)

After lunch I went upstairs to the Facilities (again, where was handicapped access?) (the public restrooms located in two places in the village were the only wheelchair access places I could see), and found the world's tiniest semi-modern bathroom. One of the stalls had a door that opened inward, so it hit the front of the toilet. Because of the placement of the toilet paper holder, one had about six inches--maybe less--to wedge oneself inside. Luckily for me, the other stall's door opened outward. It was still tricky to move inside, but whatever needed to be done was possible if one was determined enough.

The day was gorgeous and the houses were picturesque. Because there were so few people there, I got to chat with some of the costumed folks who hung around their doors waiting for patrons. So friendly! Oddly, everyone was concerned that Hillsborough's (where I work) Colonial Inn is still closed after being the longest-functioning inn in the US. I assured them all that it is finally undergoing extremely extensive renovations. (Asbestos and lead were merely the first of the problems the latest owners have to overcome.) (And in my experience, the food was lousy and quite over-priced there anyway.)

Over at the Book & Gift Shop I got in a bit of trouble when their computer broke down after half-charging me for my purchase. I gave them name & address so they could contact me later once they'd straightened things out to see if I'd been double-charged, and then went upstairs to see the little art gallery they have. I wanted to see what my competition was. They had a few really nice paintings, but most were (sorry!) very amateurish but with high prices. The gallery takes a 25% commission. When I came downstairs, the people were delighted to see me as the system was online and I had indeed been double-charged, and if I could fish out my CC again we could straighten everything out. Which we did.

The largest crowd of course was at the C. Winkler Bakery, where there was a line to purchase the goodies. Most of the cookies and coffees could be bought elsewhere in town (and at ), but here you could also get fresh-baked breads, scones... and the famous Moravian sugar cake. I'm afraid I was responsible for getting two families to buy some. Now they'll be hooked for life. (You can buy the stuff online as well. Wrap the cake well and put it in your freezer, then bring it out and heat it up for serving.)

Walked a bit more, took something like 80 pictures, and realized I hadn't applied sun screen. Still, with all the overhanging trees it was fairly shady (which was why I was aiming for a sunny day and not a partly-sunny one), so things weren't that bad.

Eventually I took my shaky stomach back to the car and headed back to the hotel. I was going to go out to "Restaurant Row" on 4th street to see what I could find, but ye stomach advised staying in. The hotel made an excellent hamburger. Not so great slaw. Okay salad. Good tea. (But they always forgot to bring sweetener.)

Stomach didn't let me sleep much that night. Got a late start as I catered to it, and finally figured I could stand a quick trip to Pilot Mountain, though I didn't think I could take in Mt. Airy, located about 10 miles further down the road. (Darn, I wanted to get a shot of the "Snappy Lunch" diner, which came BEFORE the TV show, not after.) The day was not the "partly sunny" day the weatherman had promised. It was overcast, but every now and then the clouds would clear. It might make for good pictures at that if I timed things right.

As I drove down Hwy 52, I suddenly got a very good glimpse of Pilot Mtn through a break in the trees, like, boom, there it was from nowhere. There didn't seem to be other mountains in the area, though there was a high horizon far beyond. Ignoring every safety rule, I dug into my tour bag for my camera, got it out, turned it on, and managed a couple shots through the windshield in the next few miles.

Then the state actually gave us a "Photo Op Viewpoint": an exit, a parking lot, and a ramp back onto the highway. I got out and took a shot, then got back on the highway.

The next time I saw the mountain it had gone all blue. Darn! Some cloud must be sitting on it. It'd probably be all foggy by the time I got there.

Then the sky fell in. I drove through a mammoth downpour. Some partly cloudy! But the turnoff was right ahead. I took it. The information station turned out to just be a ranger station with a map posted outside (and public bathrooms).The rain was just a drizzle now. Oh, what the heck. I was here. I figured there'd be an outlook at that bump just to the left of the knob where I could take a few pictures looking up at it. The map didn't seem like the road would be that long.

So I took the left fork and started going up. And up. And seriously UP. It was a tiny paved road. There was zero shoulder on the side I was on (a part of me said thank goodness, I'll be against the mountain coming down). Occasionally there'd be a barrier made of short pieces of 2x4's that looked like I'd been in charge of the hammering and sawing. I didn't trust it at all. I drove down, or rather up, the center of the two-lane road at 15 mph (speed limit was 25 except on the curves, which were many), and thanked the universe that I seemed to be the only car up here.

Well after I thought the road should have come to an end, just about the time I was beginning to get dizzy from panic at being so incredibly high (don't look down! I ordered myself whenever a bit on my right opened up), I finally arrived at a parking lot (and public bathroom) with wood-fenced overlooks. We were at the very top of the mountain, looking down. There was no mountain to photograph, just the view. While I'd been sweating and making bargains with God, the rain had completely disappeared and the sky was blue.

(Okay, we weren't at the VERY top, but were close enough. Near enough to sneeze at it. There were trails around us, including one called the "Pinnacle View" trail, but I was too dizzy and sick to consider taking it. Studying the map afterward, it still seems to me like we must have been within just a few lateral feet of the very top of the place.) ('Scuze me; I'm starting to feel ill just remembering it.)

I didn't really feel like taking in the view. My heart was pounding, I was dizzy, and worst of all, if I actually had a heart attack or full-out panic attack, if I could actually get out a 911 call (was there reception up here?) for help, at some point I'd have to return for my car and drive back down.

I had a serious talk with myself in the rest room, and finally, not looking at all the sky surrounding us at eye-level, I quaked back to the car. Praying furiously, I put it in second gear and started down. At one point I may actually have made it to 23 mph, but I tried to keep it at 15. My brakes had been done recently; I hoped the mechanic had done a good job.

At last! The ranger station! I put the car in drive and didn't recall from before how steep it was getting up to that point. But I made it to the stop sign below the station, and from there it was a hop back to the LEVEL highway and home.

Uhh. Must remember... DO NOT ATTEMPT HEIGHTS!!! This will certainly eliminate the Blue Ridge Parkway from my list of places to be photographed, unless I do it while it's still relatively low, like it is around Asheville. Think I'll keep to a lot of sea level ocean views instead.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Writing pt 4: Don't make your reader work

The very first workshop I ever attended at my local RWA chapter (go, Heart of Carolina RWs!) was one that taught about writing to the proper grade level.

Well, duh. Almost all romance readers would be high school graduates, and a large percentage would have had some college. Why then did this speaker tell us we should be writing on a 4th-6th grade level?

I turned to the woman beside me. "She's not serious, is she?" I whispered.

"You bet she is," she replied. "We all check this stuff."

Well actually only a few do. But it is true enough: readability matters. This one particular speaker went through various favorite authors and gave the reading levels that they wrote to. It was all at an elementary level, or just a hair above. Through the years I've read more articles about this, including ones in which folks took all the NYT best-sellers for a particular week and analyzed their writing.

4th to 6th grade, with just a couple straying into 3rd and 7th grade territory.

Hunh. Lessee... Stephen King writes 4th grade level... He makes a bajillion dollars on his books... He has gazillions of fans... Maybe I should be writing 4th grade level too?

But how the heck do I discover what my levels are? How does this stuff work?

If you're trying to write professionally, you're using some version of Word. I'm on a Mac, so what I tell you may not be the exact order of how to get to this particular screen on a PC, but if you look on your menu you'll see a "help" button. Use it and key in: "Flesch." That's "flesh" with a "c." It will bring up "readability scores." Check out that section.

On a Mac you want to go under Preferences > Spelling & Grammar > click on "Check Grammar with Spelling" and make sure "Show readability statistics" is checked. You can't get this final box to check unless you've got the grammar turned on. Then you highlight whatever copy you want to check and run it through spell-check. Just keep hitting "ignore" until the piece is through, and your scores will come up. Yes, it's idiotic that you can't just say, "check readability" and it does it. You've got to jump through hoops.

So what do your scores mean? The Flesch Reading Ease score counts the length of your sentences and your average syllable usage. For fiction you want to stay in the 60-70 range. The higher you go, the simpler your language is. The grade level score also counts syllables and sentence length but uses a different formula. Word says you want to be about Grade 7 or 8.

Yet think of all those best-selling authors. James V. Smith Jr. wrote Fiction Writer's Brainstormer, which is a truly anal-retentive book that you need for those too-many times when you've got to get down n' dirty anal-retentive. On this subject he uses charts for NYT best-selling authors' work.

The Flesch Reading Ease scale? Steven King's an 84. John Grisham is 72. Danielle Steel is 83. His "pro-average" writer is 83. His "amateur" writer is 71. And I do love this: the US government writes at a 36 level.

Let's switch over to the grade levels. King is Grade 4. Grisham, 6. Steel, 5. Pro-average, 4. Amateur, 6. US government: 12.

This past week over on the Wonder Woman board at Comic Book Resources, some people complained that a column sounded "a little stuffy." This particular column was a literary examination of a comic book, so it was not fiction. It was written at a Grade 10 level for an audience of comic book readers. It was this that reminded me of the two scales available in Word, and hurriedly I checked my own column (AFTER I'd sent it off, duh!) for its level. Mine was 7th grade.

But like I said, these two columns are NON-FICTION. For such, check your expectations of audience. Are you writing for collegiates or a more general population?

As for fiction, your scores should vary from scene to scene. Action scenes should grade very, very low. Why? Because grade scores are based on sentence length and syllables. For action scenes your sentences should run shorter than usual, to increase the pace of things. Your word choice should skew to brisk, low-syllable words. Passages where you're plugging in back story (subtly, of course), delving into character, describing the landscape, and such will have longer, more leisurely sentences so your grade level will go up. Just make sure the two types of writing aren't radically different. Your readers shouldn't feel they're reading two different books pasted together.

Another trick: One of the first things I learned with my romance writer friends concerned paragraphs. I'd always been proud of my high school papers. I'd write my topic sentence, then three sentences to clarify things, then a summary sentence. Ta dah! A perfect paragraph!

That's not how real life works, especially real life fiction. If you don't have an ebook reader (horrors!), thumb through some best-selling or genre book you have lying around and look at the paragraphs.

They're short. I mean, really short.

Two back-to-back paragraphs can seem as if they should have been combined into one, but they haven't. Why is that?

White space. Readers like white space. They don't want to be confronted with a solid page of type. That's hard to read! So break up your paragraphs into breezy bits. (I once read a book 50% of whose paragraphs were single, short sentences. Obviously the author thought she was doing High Style and increasing the drama. Instead, she was irritating the heck out of this reader at least, who determined never to read another of her books.) Single sentence paragraphs (see above for one or two) do have drama and snap when saved for the proper moment.

And of course one of the final things you do to every book is this: read it out loud. That's right, each and every word. Sure, it seems redundant and time-consuming, but you'll be surprised at how things sound and how many small changes you'll make because of it. Your prose will flow much better.

Which will increase the readability of your book.

END NOTE: This column had a Flesch reading ease score of 76.6 and a Flesch-Kincade grade level of 5. Also, 3% of my sentences were passive, which is a subject we might cover in a future column.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Art School #4: Know your colors

Awright! You're ready to begin painting. You've got that photo of dear young Edwin that you've been dying to paint a portrait from.

First thing: Put Edwin down. Wait until perhaps your third painting to try your first portrait. You should be comfortable with your materials and the way they work before you try a portrait.

So you've probably got a landscape you want to paint. Isn't this a perfect time of year to go out and paint en plein air! (Then why am I painting inside this weekend?) Terrific! But first... Or since we've already dealt with the first thing up there, secondly...

Know your colors.

The two things you can do before you paint the first stroke that will improve what you're about to do 100%, are:

• Do a preliminary thumbnail, or small sketch, of what you're going to paint. Make it the same ratio as your canvas. Divide things up into four values so you can see the simple pattern of eye movement and composition involved. You may want to make another thumbnail, try your values a different way. Or even (gasp) a third.

EACH TAKES ONE MINUTE TO DO. Most students miss doing this entirely and then wonder what went so terribly wrong?

• Look at the paints you've got squirted out onto your palette. Okay, this step is probably best done BEFORE you start to paint a subject, so look at the paint you've bought, the paints you're usually going to use.

Play with them.

No, I don't mean to smudge them all over yourself! Cheez! Okay, okay, let me explain.

When I was in high school and my high school wouldn't let me take art because college-bound students Didn't Take Art (and girls couldn't take auto repair or tennis), my parents let me take art lessons for a few Saturdays from a local lady. We worked in her garage.

(A few months after lessons ended, she walked into a 7-11 down the road from my house and was killed by a punk robber. I hope they caught him and that he fried painfully somewhere.)

Anyway, when we first started, she handed out index cards blank except for a pattern of circles on them. We were supposed to take them home and fill them in with color, seeing how the colors mixed. She had cards for just about every "opposites" combination she could think of.

And yeah, I think I did about six. Bad, bad me. Yet those six cards increased my knowledge of color enormously.

So this is what you do, and if you want to use blank index cards, that's just peachy. You've only got a few colors, so it won't be that bad. Each card will take you TWO MINUTES to do. You will keep these cards. You will take them to the grave with you, they'll be so handy.

What you do is pick out two opposite colors. What are opposite colors? These are colors that are placed opposite each other on a color wheel. Now, WHY is this?

Because when they combine they can cancel each other out. They will make a gray or neutral. A lot of times this "gray" will be brownish. The trick is that you won't be able to see either color in the mix when you get it right.

It's magic. And even better, you'll find it INCREDIBLY useful as you paint.

So go ahead. You may have to mix up a secondary color from your primaries to do this. You'll want to look at combinations for red and green; blue and orange; yellow and violet.

We did these things by sticking our thumbs in the color and mooshing them onto the card. You can use a brush. Start with pure color. Put a dab of red on one end of your card, centering it vertically, and a dab of green on the other end. Now on your palette begin to play with your color, combining them until you can't see either a red or green in your mixture. Put that in the middle.

Now if you really want to do this right, you'll add in a couple stations between these so you'll get a reddish-gray mixture on the red side of your gray and a green-gray one on the green side.

Now add white to the whole lot and place that result above your little spectrum. These are TINTS. You can make even lighter ones if you want.

Add some black if you've got it to the mixtures you did from the pure colors (the stuff that doesn't have white in it) and arrange those on the bottom half of the card. You can add even darker mixtures. These are SHADES.

And voila! You know what two of your colors can do. Isn't it amazing the amount of lovely color you can get out of a mere two starting colors!

NOTE: I know you only have so much money as you begin in art. You've only bought a few colors. As I said in an earlier lesson, the target is to have a cool version of yellow, red and blue and a warm version of the same. Cool means they lean to the blue side; warm means they lean to the yellow side. There is no way to produce a "pure" primary color in paint, so all the primaries you find will be "tainted" in some way.

So as not to end up with mud, you'll want to mix warm with warm and cool with cool. (And sometimes you WANT mud.)

Stephen Quiller ( is a GOD of color. I was just watching one of his videos this morning and noticed that he not only gives exact names for what he wants in each position of his palette (he lays down primaries, secondaries and tertiary color straight out of the tube), but he's got a Violet named after himself. He had a company formulate it so it precisely neutralized Cadmium Yellow Light, which he uses as his yellow.

So FYI, his ACRYLIC primaries and secondaries are: cadmium yellow light, pyrrole orange, quinacridone red, Quiller violet (available from Jack Richeson), thalo blue (green shade) (as opposed to thalo blue [red shade]; this is one of those warm and cool things we talked about), and thalo green. Before you start jumping up and down in dismay, let me remind you that these are just his personal choices for colors. I know a couple of very famous artists who swear that a ruby red is the one, the only, true red in the entire manufactured-pigment universe. Others say cadmium red is the only way to go.

If you bought your paints as a set, that's likely JUST FINE.

Use the colors that work for you. Use colors that will neutralize each other so you can get a great range of color on your painting.

ARTEEST NOTE: It is very okay, even chic, to refer to the cadmiums as "cad" this and "cad" that. Quinacridone? "Quin" this and "quin" that. You'll impress everyone with your artistic savoir-faire!

Th-th-that's all for now. Feel free to ask questions! What subjects would you like me to cover? If I don't know the answer I'll track down someone who does.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Writing, pt. 3: Conflict

The success of a book rests upon its characters. Are they interesting? Great. But… What do they do during the course of your book?

They could skip about and yak and tra-la, but most readers would find that dreadfully boring. So your characters must act toward a purpose. They must have a goal.

Say your heroine wants to save the house she grew up in, slated for demolition. That’s faboo! This is what we call an EXTERNAL goal, something that the character wants outside of themselves. But the more meaningful goal is usually the INTERNAL one. Sally wants to save the house because she was mean to her mother before she died, and her mother always loved that house. Saving it is a way to soothe her guilt about how she treated her mother.

But wait! The current owners are behind in payments to the bank and the people there want their money. They aren’t going to sell to Sally but rather to the developer who wants the house merely for the land it’s on so he can build a brothel that also stocks illegal drugs which they plan to sell to the kids in the kindergarten next door. The bank and developer are now the ANTAGONISTs, the entities that push against the efforts of the PROTAGONIST (Sally) in order to try to stop her from achieving her goal.


If you’ve structured things really well, the Protagonist and Antagonist’s quests to fulfill their different goals will make them run smack up against each other time and again. Drama! Things are going to get worse and worse and worse for poor Sally until she figures a way to best that nasty ol’ bank and get her house… If that’s what she really wants by the last chapter of the book. Goals often change over time.

There are four major turning points in a book: the first, just a little ways into the beginning, is the "invitation to adventure," where a problem first appears and your protagonist has to make the decision to DO something. At the end of your first act, once everything is proceeding apace and you're about a quarter of the way in, you have another turning point into the second act. Then there’s one at the midpoint, which is at the middle of your book and the second act. This is a biggie, with something good usually happening to Our Hero/ine, but right afterward everything reverses into giant uh oh! Then there’s another turning point at the end of the second act, which is about 3/4 of the way through. (After that comes your third act which will be the concluding one.)

The great Jenny Crusie says that at every turning point you have to ask: “What does my character want?” At the turning point after that, you have to ask, “No, what does my character REALLY want?” and so on. See? You’re peeling back onion layers of personality, as Shrek's Donkey would say.

As we get deeper and deeper discovering Sally’s internal goals, we might find her external goal changing as well. She wants to save the house. Then she wants to save something inside the house. Then she just wants to save some precious keepsake of her mother’s that’s been left inside. (By now she doesn’t want to assuage her guilt; rather, she wants to show her mother’s spirit that she loves her.) Maybe something might spur her to create a huge campaign that will save not only the entire house, but the neighborhood as well.

Or not. The final goal doesn’t have to be big but it does have to be DEEP. There should be some kind of progression with at least a slight changing of goals that mirrors how your character changes from the start to the end of the book. (The character arc.) As your character learns about life and how to handle it in different ways, their view toward their internal and external goals will change.

What, your character doesn’t change? Hm. Are you sure you have a solid story? If you do, something’s changing. Look again. Is there someone who changes a lot during the course of your story who isn't your current Hero? Maybe they're the real protagonist. (I've used the wrong protagonist twice in my proto-novels. It's not that big a deal to focus in on them instead of your previous Hero as things begin to fit EVER so much better!) Exaggerate the change if you must. I think you’ll be pleased with the result. You want drama! You don't want just to grab your reader; you want to grab and SHAKE them!

If you’re writing a romance you’ve got both Hero and Heroine. They will PROBABLY (not always) be acting as antagonist to the other while they’re their own protagonist, and their quest for their individual goals will clash terribly. Perhaps there’ll be another antagonist, worse than either of them individually, so that the H/H will have to combine forces to overcome the problem the Big Bad brings.

That’s how conflict works for the entire book. Now look at your individual scenes. Each scene is going to have conflict within it as well. It’s a book in miniature. If you can’t find the conflict in your scene, maybe you can live without it.

Don’t get scenes mixed up with “sequels.” A scene is a unit of your book in which action takes place. The result of it is NEVER EVER a “whew! I got it all done!” (“yes”) unless you are on the final chapter of your book. A scene will always end with some kind of disaster. If you read Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham (and you should!), you’ll discover that your protagonist will try to accomplish their goal despite an antagonist (who doesn't have to be the book's antagonist, but rather the antagonist only for that scene) during a scene. They can wind up getting a “yes, but” conclusion with some kind of condition applied to obtaining the goal. OR, amping that up is a “no, but” which gives the protagonist some small hope of getting that goal. Then there’s “no, and further more,” which is a hard slap that sets them farther back from their goal than they were to begin with. Cool!

A “sequel” in this sense is not Star Wars V but rather a unit of fiction-telling in which the protagonist has to emotionally react to what they’ve just been through in the preceding scene (that slap-down!) and then make plans for what they’re going to do in their next scene. Sequels can be long pages of planning and angsting, or they can be one line long. Or even glossed over and revealed in a line or two or suggestion in the next scene that shows the reader that our protagonist planned whatever it is they’re doing now. That’s why Sally has put on a man’s suit and fake beard and has just entered the bank; the sequel is now implied within the scene that she's planned a masquerade for some purpose.

So you should have conflict at every level in your novel. Otherwise, it’s just a tea party with people congratulating themselves about how wonderful they are.

I have a saying posted on the bulletin board behind me: “In fiction, the best times for the writer—and the reader—are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble." Don’t coddle your characters! I know you love ‘em to pieces. But if you really love them, you’ll cause them trouble. Big ol’ handfuls of nasty-wasty Trouble!

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Inside Poop: What They Won't Tell You About Colonoscopies

Okay, I know you're supposed to get a colonoscopy when you hit the big 5-0. I said, "I'll do it real soon." Three years later, I actually asked my doctor (with whom I'd finally made an appointment for my decadinal [as opposed to annual] physical) to schedule me for one.

Everyone I knew always shuddered at the mere mention of "colonoscopy." They must be awful!

Two weeks before my appointment I called Dook Hospital, where the procedure would be done (otherwise, say, if it had been done in my doctor's clinic, my insurance would have paid for it. This way they didn't have to do that), and asked, wasn't there some kind of meds I had to be getting?

I was supposed to have gotten an informational packet along with a prescription at least a month previously. Dook assured me that they'd fax the whole shebang to Wally World, and they did. I picked it up along with a box labeled "MoviPrep," and took it home.

According to the directions, I couldn't take a taxi to Dook. I called them. Turns out they don't want a possibly irresponsible person taking charge of a woozy patient. So I asked if Dook, one of the largest and most respected hospitals in the entire freaking WORLD, had some kind of service that would provide transportation, or perhaps put patients up overnight until they were deemed awake enough to drive themselves home.


Well then, did Dook know of any organizations in the area that provided such services?


I had to reschedule, but assured them that if the rules still stood as such I'd just have to reschedule and reschedule and reschedule because I didn't have anyone who could take off an entire afternoon from work just to accompany me to a doctor's appointment. By September school would be in session. Maybe I could hire some irresponsible college student to do the job.

Luckily, I happened to see a sign for "Home Helpers" one day in downtown Hillsborough. I gave them a call. Sure, they did this kind of thing all the time. Their people were drug-tested and investigated so as to keep out the loons. I went over and signed a bunch of legal papers, discovered that they also CLEAN HOUSES!!! (oh! I am SO going to clean my house enough so I can get some pros in to clean it properly) and do all kinds of things for folks.

So now all I had to worry about was the appointment. Some kind people at work emailed me Dave Barry's column on his first colonoscopy (url at the end of this), which didn't quite make some of the worst prospects look so good, but made others look a lot better. One of my coworkers told me she'd been awake during the procedure. Uh oh.

I checked the instructions on the MoviPrep and followed them. The day before the procedure I was on a clear liquid diet, no red or purple items. To assure that I would be as little hungry as possible, I stocked up with about $50 of drinks: Gatorade (the low-cal version), strained fruit juices, ginger ale, broths. I think I may have drunk about $10 of it. I only got a minor hunger pang once, just before lunchtime on the first day. I had chicken broth for that lunch. You'd be surprised how GOOD chicken broth tastes! I mean: yummy!

(A part of me wondered if I was drinking too much. There've been so many news stories about people who have died after drinking X amount of water...)

For dinner I gorged on lemon-lime and orange Jello. Fabulous!

At 6 PM it was time to begin drinking the first round of MoviPrep, which I'd prepared that morning. People had told me how AWFUL that stuff was. I took a sip at 6:05. Man, they must be wimps! Tasted like I recalled Mountain Dew tasting. Granted, I've only had MD about twice in my life, but this had a lemon-lime twang to it (one of the main ingredients was ascorbic acid). Okay, so far so good.

You're supposed to drink the stuff so you've got it all down in an hour. It took me an hour and a half because by the third glass it wasn't tasting so great. Maybe like moldy Mountain Dew. Perhaps I'd just been drinking too much that day and my body was rejecting the idea of liquids.

But after you get it all down you've got to drink 16 oz. more of clear liquids. I opted for water--the best water EVER!!! So yummy after the Prep. Glug, glug, no prob.

So the MoviPrep was injested by 7:30. The instructions said that things might begin to happen after the second glassful. I waited. "Anybody there?" I asked the lower part of my body.

At about 7:55 it answered and I settled in to reading a novel in my Reading Room. It wasn't that bad. (A coworker had told me to get aloe-infused TP, which was a good idea once everything was over.) By 9:45... Oh, 10:15 at the most, it was all over and, unlike what a few of my co-workers had told me, I got a good night's sleep, no probs. The second round of MoviPrep would start first thing in the morning.

My main worry was the drive in to Dook. I would be in a stranger's car. Would I have to sit on a garbage bag? I mean, you know, in case... something happened? Now I thought perhaps that might not be too much of a problem.

I set my alarm for 5:00. Yes! I can get up then! If I did, it would all be SO over by the time I got in the car to leave!

But three rounds of snooze later, I finally dragged myself up to a sitting position. Fed the cats, almost got breakfast. Oh, right. No solids. Decided to tackle the MoviPrep right away. Started at 6:00, estimated a leisurely finish at 7:15.

Finished at 8:00. It wasn't that the MoviPrep was foul or anything, it was just that you took a sip and your body refused to swallow. This is the part of the procedure that takes GUTS, my friends! Chugging that MoviPrep! It was sheer fear of the ride to Dook that got me to finish it off.

It was also glass #2 of this round that things got moving. But by 9:45, pretty much, the process was over. My ride was due at 10:30. He showed up at 10:10 and by golly, I was ready.

Got to Dook, zipped through check-in, went back into the put-on-this-gown area and answered medical questions. "My doctor is part of the Dook system," I told the medic. "Shouldn't this information already be in my records?" She assured me that the systems weren't quite coordinated yet, but now that she was inputting everything we wouldn't have to worry about it any more.

Fifteen minutes later another person asked me the same questions and inputted them on a keyboard five feet away from the previous one. Guess communications weren't that good within the boundaries of Dook. And ten minutes after that, thirty feet down the hall, yet another medic keyed in the same answers on yet another computer. Then another appeared on the other side of my gurney with a clipboard, and I answered the same questions yet again. Ah, modern technology!

One of the medics told me that I'd have amnesia for the entire day. "But I'm reading a novel!" I exclaimed. "I'm twenty pages from the end!"

"You'll have to read it again."

Thank goodness I'd made four short notes about what I wanted to include in my first column for CBR. But had I stated them clearly? I'd been thinking long and hard about that column. Darn! It'd all be gone.

They started the IV. I was a little POd that I not only heard the doctor say, "Okay, we're beginning now," but I distinctly felt three oofy bits that made me say, "Ow." They'd explained how a little stretching might occur as they went around the bends of my innards (to use the scientific term). I wondered if I'd be able to make it. I mean, it wasn't a real ow-y kind of ow, it was just the kind of ow you make to get your dentist's attention to stay away from that particular corner of your tooth, that there's still a nerve ending in the general neighborhood that's semi-awake.

But that was the last I remembered of the procedure. I woke up and Jay, the kind gentleman from the Home Helpers place, was just sitting down to get briefed by the doctor as to my state. I remembered him. I remembered that Joanne was in deep doo-doo in the novel I was reading. I remembered everything I'd planned for my column.

"Are you releasing gas?" a medic asked me. Apparently they pump you full of air during the process. I assured her that as a lady I don't release gas ever, thank you very much. I got dressed and was dizzy enough that they zipped me through Dook in a wheelchair as Jay brought his car around.

I burped a few times. Very subtly, quite ladylike.

Got home fine. We stopped at Wendy's first and I got a semi-healthy dinner as take-out. Ate. Took a long nap. Left a message at work that, surprise, you can't drive for 24 hours after the procedure (some places say 36), but that I'd shave a couple of hours off that and come in around lunch the next day. That night I listened to all the gas in my innards regale me with an organ recital as things shifted around in there.

I'd lost 9 pounds during the entire process. Yay!

And that was that. What a huge worry over a big bunch of nothing! I'm glad to say the checkup showed I was fine.

I think the best thing about it was that I found out that one of my co-workers is going in in 2 weeks to have HIS first colonoscopy. I sat there and razzed him about it along with everyone else who'd been through one. I was part of the Colonoscopy Gang now, one of those In The Know.

Don't know how much it's going to cost me yet. I just closed my eyes and said it had to be done. Good thing I have an HSA with some $$ left in it. Mr. Obama: some better health insurance options, please!

So now you know. And if you need another opinion about it, just read Dave Barry:

And don't put off your colonoscopy because you're afraid of it. Nothin' to it. Just have a good book standing by in your personal Reading Room.

LATE NOTE: According to my insurance rep, if the procedure is preventative it'll cost me nothing, just like a mammogram. However, if they'd have found something during the procedure, I'd have had to have paid full price for it. Isn't our insurance system wonderful! :^(

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Art School #3: Value

Oy, is this late! What can I say, it's been a ka-razy week plus two! But let's get to this lesson, especially since it's shorter than the preceeding lessons have been (a habit I hope to continue).

I attended a week-long painting workshop put on by watercolorist Tony Couch. Midweek he put away his paints for the morning and gave a lecture to those who wanted to hear. He packed more into that lecture than I'd gotten with four years studying art at Carolina.

One of the things he did was to list all the things an artist had to keep in mind while they were painting. It went on and on: edges (soft and hard), composition, eye movement within canvas, brushstrokes, etc etc etc, seemingly ad infinitum. While we groaned, he told us that learning to paint was like learning to drive: you mastered one or two things, then moved on to the next thing. You don't learn everything all at once. As you practiced, what you had learned became second-nature and you could move along to the next item.

In other words: don't sweat it.

But of all the things he listed, the most important was VALUE. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of something. Light = "high" value; dark = "low" value. Many times you'll see a gray scale, labeled from 1 to 10. 1 will be white and 10 will be black.

Value in painting is like characterization in novels. You can do the work without paying much attention to these things, but what you produce won't be very enjoyable. Both are the most important element in their art form. If you get the values in your painting right, you can slab on just about any color you want and it'll still make an acceptable painting. Paint with lovely colors but ignore value? You get a mess.

Observe the above. On the left we have our oranges done in tones of only black. You can see a complete range of values here. On the right I've tried to take out as much of the value as I could and was 75% successful. We are left with hue, or color.

Which is the clearer picture?

Even without orange, our black-and-white value oranges are clearly recognizable as such.

Values can give a painting emotion. High-value paintings, or those that don't use the darkest darks, can be cheery. Low-value paintings, or those that don't use the lightest lights, can be mysterious. You don't have to use the entire range, either. You can settle on the mid-tones only, which might give you a bit of a dull painting without the "umph" of extremes, or you can lop off one end or the other of the range.

I own an art book that has you begin by painting a mid-tone color all over your canvas. The author uses red. (After last spring's plein air experience, I'll never do that again!) Then he paints a pattern of black showing the darkest parts of his subject. Then he puts in the lightest tones by painting a pattern of white. When he gets a pattern he likes, he starts to paint for "real," knowing that he's got a solid painting under way.

This pattern is one in which your eye will remain wandering your canvas. It should start in at your focal point (which has the greatest contrast in values within it), the main target of whatever you're painting, and then wander about over the canvas (don't let the eye travel off the canvas!), having a good experience in doing so, and returning to the focal point to begin again. A painting is supposed to be entertainment, like a good book or movie. You've got an audience, even if it's just yourself you want to please. You keep it entertained and rapt by providing this gazing journey and along the way you paint in surprises and calm spots, keeping everything varied and interesting.

But the basic way, the starting point, for all this is VALUE.

Notes to ponder: Many landscape painters begin with small sketches ("thumbnails") of their subject rendered in just four values. They take the 1-10 value scale and reduce it to a range of four values. This helps them simplify their subject. I like to use three increasingly gray markers plus the white of the paper I'm sketching on to provide my 4-step scale. Try it with different subjects and see how it works for you.

Also note: North Light Books puts out a little plastic value scale for artists to refer to. (Believe me, value scales come in very handy at times!) The only thing is, they print it on a medium-gray plastic. That means that in the slot for value #1, which should be white, you get the gray that is the plastic. The gray ground contaminates every value on the scale except for #10, which is black, because the gray makes it much darker than it should be.

This value scale is a best-seller at North Light, a truly WTF (pardon my French) idea! Don't use this kind of scale. Use one that's printed on white so that #1 is white, #10 is black, and the other slots on the scale are evenly graded between.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Painting update

I think I've finally finished that painting that I started last... May? at the Raleigh Plein Air Paint out. Let's look at what I brought home that day after a few hours of hard work on location:

Well, I thought it was pretty much a disaster. I was working on that roof on the right asking myself, "Why did I pick this scene? Why did I zero in on this big, blank roof?"

When I got home and looked at the photos I'd taken, I realized why: because when I'd started there was a great shadow on that roof. The sun had moved a LOT during the course of the painting and I hadn't made enough sketches before I began to show where the light should be. So the painting ended up as an afternoon picture instead of a morning one.

So I've been working on it:

And it seems fairly much "there" now, though I may do a little more work on it. Notice how I changed the shape of the tree so it's not a big vertical stick, just like the stick houses behind it, but rather has some curve to it and variance in width.

Now the eye can enter at that red tree on the right, travel up the bright roof following that great shadow, jump over to the other roof and travel down, latch onto the tree and curve around back to the red tree. The eye stays within the painting.

I also had fun simplifying the background trees. Think I'll be working on simplification this year. I'm trying to get away from strict implementation of what's on the picture/what's in front of me, and back away at the half-way point to start to worry about what works for the PICTURE and not how to best mimic the actual scene.

Thus the red bushes on the left, which I'd been so excited about with their fiery red tips. Instead now they're blurred and blued up to push them off into the distance, away from our central interest points.

I wish I'd rearranged the houses more. That porch roof ends right where the sides of the background house turn into shadow, creating a natural focal point. I had to blur that down and adjust values so it wouldn't stand out so much.

Anyway, that's it on this picture for now (maybe a few minor brushstrokes needed here and there) except that I need to paint the sides of the canvas still. I needed to get it done today to include it in a portfolio I'm putting together that has a deadline of next week.

Hope you enjoy!

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 , and her forms and process build off a seminal writing book called GMC: Goals, Motivation and Conflict, by Debra Dixon.

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. It'll be on Amazon in a few weeks. Buy now! Buy!)