Monday, September 27, 2010

What's your "Blue Dog"

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Louisiana artist George Rodrigue.
Here, this will help:

His iconic image of "Blue Dog" is one of those images that stays with you. It's haunting. It's compelling. It's intriguing. There is ONE blue dog, and he appears in every one of George Rodrigue's paintings.

I saw George speak a few years ago, and he talked about working as a painter for years before he painted this image. He had had some success as an artist, but it wasn't until that auspicious day, the day that "Blue Dog" emerged from somewhere deep within his consciousness, that he hit that next level. He became a very successful artist--one whose works sell for huge amounts of money and whose works hang in museums, galleries and collections around the world. The "Blue Dog" image has been compared to the Mona Lisa for having that unique quality that resonates with people. That je ne sais quas. Even George Rodrigue said that he doesn't quite understand why that one image hits an emotional chord with people. But it does.

Katie and I attended the MidSouth SCBWI Conference in Nashville over the weekend. It was a great conference, and we both left feeling energized and inspired. But, on the way home, we started talking about what it takes to make it in the publishing world. We were surrounded by so much incredible talent--both the illustration and writing talent. We heard some incredible first pages read and the illustrations exhibited were AMAZING. I was truly humbled.

But, talent aside, the reality is that many of the people in that room will never be published--that's just statistics! It can be disheartening when you really think about it--you're good enough, but you might not make it.

So what is it that brings a few people to the top? Hard work--yes. Tenacity--yes. Talent--yes. Fearlessly submitting--yes. Revising and rewriting--yes . . . .

But, I think that there has to be something else. A little bit of God, luck, or good karma.

That "Blue Dog" quality.

You have to have that little something extra, some little flair, that gives you that tiny edge. There must be something iconic in your work that sets you apart--whether it's a great character, hook, writing style, or voice. And, you have to be able to recognize those "Blue Dog" moments when you have them and exploit them for all they're worth. Okay--maybe exploit isn't the right word. But, you do have to latch on to those moments of brilliance (I believe EVERYONE has them at some point) and have the good sense to run with them.

So, everyone . . . what's your "Blue Dog"?


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gellin' in Nashville

I am currently reclined just like this in SF's and my hotel room in Nash Vegas, Tennessee where we are marinating in the fabulous advice found at the SCBWI-Midsouth writers conference - one of our favorites.

SF just went downstairs to the first pages discussion while I prepare to "take a break" and work on the ol' revision. But, ten minutes later and I am still sitting here, so I've decided to blog instead.

(* note: I'm so brain dead that I have had to edit this durn post like 80 times due to all the typos. Hopefully no one here in Nashville will decide to google us and read it.)

Anyhoo, most of you know that SF is our Resident Notetaker Extraordinaire, and you will definitely want to tune in next week for her killer notes, but, in the meantime, here's a glimpse of the kind of notes I take:

  1. Ask Kelly Sonnack where she got those killer gray boots.
  2. Ruta Rimas is a rockstar editor. She LOVES words and analyzes them as if they are separate brushstrokes within a canvas. Very cool and so technical that I love it!
  3. Gigi's is giving away coupons for cupcakes.
  4. Ellen Hopkins thinks about her characters for a month or so before she ever starts writing. Has awesome handout.
  5. Take extra teeth wax on long trips.
  6. Tell organizers to make more coffee.
  7. Rethink the relationship between your MC and her nemesis. I think they are more similar than you previously thought.
  8. Read Crank.
  9. Figure out what motivates every action your MC makes. Make sure it's motivated by her own desires and not yours as the author.

As you can see, I rely totally and completely on SF for the full conference breakdown. I prefer to absorb the genius and gel with it for a while. But this works well for me. By the time I go home, I will be a revision machine (and know where Kelly got those boots).

Later Gators.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Braces Saga Continues...

I just had my bottom brackets removed...

No, "removed" sounds so nice - like removing toe nail polish or makeup. I just had my bottom brackets pried off with pliers and the remaining glue underneath them filed down with an industrial sanding machine. To say that it was scary would be an understatement. I wish I had asked the nurse to take a picture of my face, I think it must have looked like this:

You see, my overbite was so deep that my top two teeth were the only teeth that touched the bottom. My entire upper jaw was being stopped by the lower brackets. This kept my jaw permanently ajar and made eating solid food impossible.

Doc agreed to remove the bottom brackets until the tops moved out enough that I could chew again. We estimate a few months.


On the way home, I had a horrifying discovery. I could feel that my mouth was now touching on one side in the back, but something still felt off. Pulling down my car mirror, I opened my lips with my finger and could see that I had just created THE SAME PROBLEM but on my back molar! Now, still only one tooth makes contact with the bottom and instead of being my front one, it's the back right molar. But like the front problem, it isn't touching the bottom molar like I want it too. Now, it's touching the bottom metal bracket that is attached to the molar.

Remember: Tooth + Metal = OW!

Sigh.... I don't know why I thought getting braces would be easy. My teeth are complicated to say the least. As complicated as the story I am currently reworking. Oddly, the new problem didn't make me want to ditch the braces entirely, it made me so mad that I am determined to figure out a way to eat better, brush better, and mentally will my friggin' jaw to function again in record time. It did nothing but increase my drive to succeed.

This is what I realized I do with my writing. The fact that it's so hard to sell a book does nothing but make me more determined. Why is this? Am I a glutton for punishment? A lover of pain? Maybe I should have been a Navy Seal. I would have probably kicked butt in boot camp.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


SF and I are thrilled today to interview Hilary Wagner, the author of the new classic, NIGHTSHADE CITY!

Let me start by saying that I was not sure what to expect with a book about rats, but boy was I hooked! Hilary is an incredible writer which makes reading about all of her rats fascinating and addictive. I predict this book has a shelf life like none other. It is destined to be a classic.

Hilary has been on a whirlwind blog tour and today we have the privilege of talking to her about all things creepy crawly :)

1. Why rats? Did the story evolve like this or did you consider horses, frogs and bunnies first?

Oh, I always knew it would be rats. I'm a kid at heart and being born just a few days before Halloween, I've always adored the holiday and the books and movies that came with it! In the stories I read and in animated movies, they tend to use rats as creepy background. Nothing more than bony, sinister-looking rats rummaging around a dark alley in the beginning of a movie or in a part of a novel where things really get scary! I decided it was time to make rats the main characters, to explore their world. If you do some investigation, you'll discover they're far more then creepy critters. In fact, they are smarter than most animals as a whole.

2. I love the world you created for them as well as all of their different looks and personalities. Did you have to do any research for this?

Yes indeedy! I love doing research! Who knew I was such a nerdy girl? Okay, I was always nerdy, but I had no idea I was this nerdy! I read several non-fiction books on rats, taking meticulous notes and scoured websites, even got in touch with some known rat experts who were gracious enough to help me. Even still, my rats are very different than the ones that roam the real world. They have "humanish" qualities and not just because I needed them to talk in the book. There is a secret reason for their uniqueness, one that even they have yet to discover.

3. You are so good with these intriguing animals. Do you have plans for any other types of creepy crawlies in future books? Is this going to be a Hilary trademark? :)))

I can't believe you asked me this!! KINGS OF TRILLIUM, Book II in the Nightshade Chronicles, which comes out next year, has some new and intriguing creatures and let's just say my inclination for creepy critters comes back into play and then some. Don't worry though, no talking spiders or anything like that--don't care for spiders, especially talking ones! ;) Also, I'm working on a new animal series, one I'm under lock and key from my publisher not to talk about. I feel all super spy! I'm very excited about it. I'm doing research now and learning about creatures I never even knew existed!

I suppose what I like so much about animal series is having a chance to explore their world--to discover what their lives are like--to try and feel what it would be like to have a long spindly rat's tail or the ability to travel deep under the ground or possibly up into the trees--the sky! To me, animals give us endless possibilities for wonderful storytelling.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog! Your questions were so much fun to answer! Every time I talk about my rats I get all inspired--has me thinking about Book III now! ;)

NIGHTSHADE CITY is available on-line, at Barnes and Noble stores nationwide and Indie Booksellers as well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Final Thoughts and Painful News


I promised I would tell you the cool advice Robin gave me about plotting, so here it is.

She tries to end each chapter on either an emotional high (+), an emotional low (-), or a cliffhanger (*).

She makes sure she alternates these feelings to always keep her reader on their toes and actually marks them at the end of each chapter with the symbols above.

If she sees too many (-)s, she inserts a (*) or a (+).

COOl, huh? Try it!


I got BRACES yesterday! And, believe it or not, I asked for them for my 40th birthday (coming very soon). I just had no idea how painful they would be! I am in too much agony to really do a bunch of blogging, so I thought I'd leave you with some before and after pictures. These were taken before the insides of my cheeks were ravaged by spiky metal thumbtacks. Not to worry, I've gobbed enough wax inside my mouth to form candles, and I've purchased the mac daddy food processor and all kinds of special toothbrushes too. I plan on being the poster child for perfect brace care. Why? Cuz that's just how you roll when you're 39 and choose to get these things.

Does anyone remember their braces?


Oh. Remind me next time to powder my chin before photos. That sucker is beaming. Ick.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New promo cards

Soooo . . . I've posted about how the conference season is upon us (and I'm counting a "season" as going TWO conferences). I'm getting ready--got my notepad, my new black stretchy boots, my first pages printed up, my illustration for the contest, my promo materials . . . .ACK!!!! I've been using the same promo cards for about three years, now.

Here 'tis:

That's Izzy who's the main character in my forthcoming picture book. I love her--this image on my business card is what started the ball rolling with Viking. But, I need some more postcards to put out with Izzy. Surely she's lonely (and surely people are tired of seeing her). So I decided to give her some friends:

Yay! Now, let's just hope Fed Ex comes through for me and my cards actually arrive BEFORE the Mid South conference.

:-) sf

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fall Fashion 101

Okay guys, some of you know SF and I are die-hard fashion lovers. SF is known to troll fashion blogs on a daily basis while simultaneously sending me links to "members only" shopping sites. We never miss an episode of Project Runway, want to move our offices into the nearest Anthropologie store, and have spent far too much time looking at winter boots on Flat or heeled? Flat or heeled? Any thoughts?

Anyhoo, when I saw this video, I had to take a break from posting about writing.

Here is my dear friend Sarah and her business partner Beth, kickin' it with their friend, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Too fun!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Conference Season

First, I'd like to extend a gigantic thank you to Carol Valdez Miller for her In Gratitude post. Unfortunately, I think I'm posting this too late for you to enter her fabulous ARC giveaway, but be sure to stop by and tell her "hello". This generosity of this writing community is amazing!

Thanks Carol!!!

I'm going to give you all a break from the mini outlining seminar that we've got going on to talk about something else:

Conference Season!!!

Okay, so I'm calling it a "season" which for me means two conferences this fall (both regional SCBWI), but it feels like a season. There's a lot of preparation that goes into conference attendance. If you've signed up for a manuscript or portfolio consultation, then you've got to get your work whipped into shape, so that maybe, just maybe, the editor of your dreams will fall in love with your work (no pressure, right?). Often, the conferences have contests that you can enter--the MidSouth conference has both a manuscript and an illustrator contest judged by a wonderful editor and art director. More prep work . . .

Plus, you need to be able to speak articulately about your books and have questions ready for editors or agents (not stalker-type questions--stuff you genuinely want to know).

It's a lot of work just to get ready to attend conferences.

PLUS, you want to pick out clothes that reflect who you are . . . okay, that's not work, but it's kinda fun. You want to give off the right vibe and present yourself the way you want to be perceived, right?

The upcoming MidSouth SCBWI Conference in Nashville will be my first conference to attend as an agented writer with a book deal. Whoa--I can't believe I just typed those words. I think on some level, I'll be more relaxed. But, on another level, the bar has shifted a little higher. I'm feeling the pressure to really get my portfolio looking as good as it can. I'd love to connect with an art director or picture book editor so that they'll remember my work for future projects.

And, I want my publisher Viking to be proud of me, too. I feel like I'm representing them as well as myself, and I want to get people excited about my book.

No pressure. Yikes!!

Here's a picture from the LA SCBWI 2009 Conference. I love all my conference friends!! Miss you guys . . .

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Walking Through Peanut Butter

I have no idea if walking through peanut butter is hard, but I think it must be. And hard is where I am these days. I swear this revision is like trudging through sludge. Super slow moving sludge.


The book is better, if not the best it's ever been, but it is taking FREAKING FOREVER and I am getting impatient.

That is all.

Back to my revision cave.

And I will give you those cool outlining tips next time - when I'm in a better mood :)

(SF here: I'm doing the same thing over here with illustrations. Total sludgefest. Literally--this painting I'm working on looks like it's been smeared with peanut butter . . . blech!!)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Outlining 201

Welcome back aspiring outliners! So we covered ACT I in last weeks post and now we are moving on :)

IF you are new to my series I fondly refer to as "Outlining for Dummies," go back and read my first post about making a timeline and splitting it into 3 acts.

After I broke ACT I into 15 chapters (according to Elana's rough breakdown), I needed to break ACT II into 20 chapters. This seemed daunting but I had followed her instructions and ended ACT I with a bang so that made the beginning of ACT II a *reaction* to the big bang. And, I also knew that the end of ACT II is where the CLIMAX of the entire book lies, so I basically had to go from big bang to climax, which is a steep hill of action and emotion.

This post will help tremendously in learning about what you need to include in this section. And it's so informative that it is has a part two, * found here*.

The above posts are written by Alexandra Sokoloff, a screenwriter who brilliantly describes things in the second Act like The Midpoint:


In the second half of the second act the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, so it’s time for desperate measures.

So, for now, try to write a few skeletal sentences about all 20 chapters in your second act. You can do it! Baby steps, people. Baby steps.

After you finish that, I want you to do the same thing for Act III. Here is Alexandra's breakdown of writing this act. It too has a second part, and should be comprised of approx 15 chapters.

Whew! Now, after you have done all that, you may think you are done, but Robin Mellom and Sherrie Peterson have given me some extra cool tips I will share with you later this week.

Happy Outlining!


P.S. I have had several people ask me how on earth I wrote a novel withOUT an outline and all I can tell you is it felt like solving the number puzzle pictured above. I slipped and slid chapters and scenes around until they all fit just so. It was a marvelous time in my creative life, but as someone once said, "All good things must come to an end."


Friday, September 3, 2010

Outlining illustrations

Katie and I have been doing a lot of talking with each other about outlining these days. And, as we've been talking about outlining our novels, especially when Katie told me about looking at a dress form as a type of outline (go back and look at this post) . . . it hit me.

I'm having to learn how to outline my illustrations.

Here's a sketch I've been working on for an SCBWI conference contest (we're supposed to illustrate a classic fairytale). This is my "outline". I've been doing most of my sketching on my computer. This enables me to change things easily, to erase, and move things around. This is all happening before any paint hits the paper. (Yikes, and now that I've posted this, I see some major changes that I need to make!!)

It is a huge change for me to work this way. When I work as a fine artist with my big drippy paint brush, there are no rules or parameters. Not really. I can paint a landscape any way I want to--if I want the sky to be pink, then I paint it pink. If I want there to be a gnarly old cedar tree in the foreground, I put one there. It doesn't matter what's really out there in the world. I'm creating a new world on the canvas--one I completely control. And, since I usually paint using acrylics, I can put layer upon layer of paint, covering and redoing as I go along until I have a balanced composition. A finished piece.

With illustrations, there ARE parameters. You are constrained by the story that you (or someone else) is telling. If the text describes a little girl in a black dress, then I pretty much have to paint a little girl in a black dress. If she's unhappy, then I'd better show her with a sad face. If she's opening a window later in the story, I'd better be sure that I paint a window in the room.

While there is still some freedom with illustrating, I can't just make up the painting as I go along. There are certain things that have to be shown, and if I don't plan for them, I end up with a hot mess. And, then I have to start over. Completely.

This has been a hard process for me to learn. I like to paint quickly, freely--I don't like feeling boxed in. But, I've found that the rewards are huge--the planning really pays off. I don't throw away as many illustrations anymore. I put much more thought in what I'm doing--each brushstroke has become intentional. I actually think each time I'm about to touch the paper with my brush, What is this bit of color going to do to the overall composition? What is this going to do to the action on the page?

I do still allow for freedom and happy accidents to happen on my paper. But, I'm learning to allow these accidents to happen within the framework of a story.

Outlining . . .


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Outlining 101

Okay folks. Roll up your sleeves because I have some info to give you. But before I do, I want to say that I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of other bloggers - bloggers who have taken the time to send me LONG emails with detailed notes, many times, even including their own outlines as examples. It has been such a blessing and so I hope some of you will be blessed by my passing it on too.

Here we go.

Now, the first thing I was advised to do was write a few sentences about what was happening in each chapter. As easy as this sounds, I knew that was almost too advanced for me - especially because I couldn't see how that would benefit anything. I needed something more skeletal.

Sweet Elana Johnson sent me gobs of great information (which I will share in pieces) but first she sent this very basic link. This is a great airplane shot of a story, but once again, I had no idea if my major plot points were in order. I had written a very tight and very complicated story, but it didn't seem to fit this standard diagram.

Therefore, the first thing I did was something no one told me to do. It was just something that felt right. I drew a line from left to right and labeled the major scenes I knew happened in the book along the line. It looked like this timeline that I found of Benjamin Franklin's life.

But, unlike Ben's, I noticed that I instinctively wrote a few things below the line that were, in fact, part of my sub plot. It was so weird to see that my brain naturally felt compelled to write several scenes that didn't pertain to my MC below the main timeline.

Then, Elana told me the most helpful thing by far. She said that ACT I in a 300 page novel usually includes chapters 1-15 (approx), ACT II includes 16-35, ACT III includes 36-50ish. These were rough guidelines, but she suggested that ACT I generally end around page 100 and end with a bang. In this chapter, things should spin out of control a bit. She even suggested I read this VERY LONG description of what Act 1 should include.

I should warn you that the above website is awesome for story structure but terrible for short attention spans. But just buckle down and read it. Perhaps, do what I did and only focus on ACT I for a few days.

After that, I scanned my Ben Franklinish timeline and, lo and behold, I could clearly see 3 separate sections. They weren't as perfectly planned as I wanted them to be, but I let that go and just narrowed in on ACT I.

Next, I was ready to do what my sweet friend Shelli advised as far as breaking this section into chapters with a short sentence describing each one. For this task, I used the outlining template in my word processor. I literally wrote chapters 1-15 and then started describing them. I'm sure you don't have to have 15 chapters, but I used that as a guide, knowing I would be cool with 13 or 16, should that be the case. The goal was to make sure I ended ACT I with a major twist.

BUT, how to make sure the tension rose all the way through?

That was actually easy. However, Robin Mellom sent me a really cool tool that helped with that also. I will tell you more about her suggestion in my next post :)

SO, for you non-outliners, take these five small steps towards your outline before we meet again.
1. Read the post about what ACT I should include.
2. Draw a simple timeline of the book, trying to split it into 3 distinct sections.
3. Break the first segment (ACT I) into 14-15 chapters.
4. Make sure the last chapter in this section is a kicker.
5. Breathe. I'll see you in a few days.

* And cling to this verse from 1 Corinthians that has really comforted me as I have struggled to learn this new skill, "God is not the author of confusion, but the God of ORDER." We serve a God who is not only a God of detail, but a God of order, and I am holding on to that promise as I forge ahead.

More next time :)

Our Motto

Our Motto