Michigan woke up Sunday to the beautiful phenomenon of ice trees and all their attendant problems–power outages, downed live wires, trees utterly destroyed, roads and sidewalk blocked by debris, and an extremely small (and skewing young) crowd at church.
The sounds of ice-laden limbs swaying, tinkling like glass, then cracking, breaking, plummeting, and shattering filled my ears as I chipped the car from its frozen skin.
After church my son “helped” clean up the front yard by karate-chopping ice from the defeated crabapple tree, which is scheduled for demolition this afternoon.
The ash that had thus far escaped death from emerald ash borers and being hit by a car has been severely damaged. I’m going to have to start thinking about moving plants around in the front, as it will likely be a full sun garden next year.
I’m disappointed that these trees will have to be replaced, but grateful nothing fell on the cars or house or power lines. As is so often the case when the weather turns challenging, we have some work to do. But we try not to miss the beauty that comes with the beast.
Over this past year, a few different people have asked me about the covers I’m creating for the short stories I’ve written. Some have wondered how I create them. It occurred to me that it might be fun to show you all the original photos I started with and the finished covers side by side so you can see how I decided what to keep, what to chop, and what to change in order to make a photo into a cover. This is going to end up a pretty long post, but I hope a pretty interesting one as well.
If I had been really smart, I would have tracked all of the changes I made to the photos so I could tell you exactly how to achieve particular effects in Photoshop. Alas, I did not do so. But messing around in Photoshop and seeing what you come up with is half the fun anyway. I didn’t really know what I was doing in several of these, so if I can end up with something compelling, so can you, even if you’re a newbie. (Also, it helps to have a husband who actually does know what he’s doing and can answer all my questions.)
Without further ado…
Beneath the Winter Weeds
Super simple because I started with a great photo. Crop, sharpen, layer one effect (don’t remember which!), and add text. You’ll see I kept the same fonts on every cover in order to give everything a family look, despite all the different colors and images.
Another one I didn’t change much beyond cropping. You’ll note that in all of these, I selected colors that were in the photo as the colors for the text. That’s one of the simplest ways to create more cohesion in a cover. If you choose colors form a chart, you’re going to get things that aren’t quite matches. Use the eye-dropper tool to select colors that are already in your photo to then color your text. Also, watch out for high contrast photos where it’s hard to find enough room to put a title that will be readable. In this photo, it was hard to find a spot for the already very short title where I could have it all one font color and yet still readable. I think I was pushing it on this one. “The” is very easy to read, while “Door” is a bit harder.
This Elegant Ruin
I hadn’t planned on putting my model on the cover at all–I only wanted to have the violin in the proper playing position. But Corissa had such an enigmatic look in her eye and I love this girl’s hair. With some adjustments for lighting and a warming filter, the whole cover has a very warm, honey glow to it. I smudged the background to create that rounded light (rather than have the straight windowsill) and created the illusion of movement on the bow using the same tactic. I remember having trouble placing the words, and even changed the title from its original (An Elegant Ruin) to achieve the right balance for the words. I then played with triangles in placement. There are three triangle shapes in this cover. Also, notice how much of the photo I didn’t use. Cropping is absolutely the most basic and effective way to turn a mediocre photo into a good one.
Also, this was one of only two photos I actually took after writing the story, for the purpose of a cover image. All the rest were photos I already had, some of them many years old.
We Shall Sometime Come to Someplace
I loved this rabbit. Problem was, the rabbit in the story is a wild one, not a gray domestic one. Wild rabbits are brown. This took a LOT of tries to get the right brown for the rabbit and the right brown for the background and those two layers were manipulated separately first, then together. It was hard to keep this from becoming just too dark.
Look how dark and crooked that original is! I did so much to this photo, I can’t even begin to tell you how I did it. Lots of strategic lighting adjustments, layer by layer, bit by bit. This was the other cover for which I asked a girl from church to model after I wrote the story. Elise didn’t bat an eye about getting in that dryer in full view of a number of people washing their clothes at the laundromat.
One Endless Summer Day
I knew I needed a ladybug for this. But she couldn’t be on a rock. I knew I needed a green plant for this. But it couldn’t be boring. So out came the lasso tool and a lot of patience, twisting and turning and shrinking and shadowing so it would look semi-real. I like the way it turned out in the end.
10 Degrees Cooler in the Shade
This was an image/title pair that preceded the story and I wrote the story to fit it. Not a lot of edits on the image. It was already quite eye-catching.
The Astonishing Moment
This may be the image that was worked over the most. When you see the original and final side by side it may not even see like the same photo. The cover image was cropped from the left side (see the lighter almost vertical line between the clouds?) and then I used several different artistic filters to make it look more illustrated, which fits with a bit in the story (although I didn’t realize it until I wrote this post). See the Mackinac Bridge in the distance in the original? Don’t let that fool you. The story actually takes place on Lake Superior.
The Beginning and the End
Cropped, flipped, brightened, and a little fun with the text. Not much more to say, except that this was one of the first images I shot with my macro lens when I got it.
This image was obviously cropped and brightened and I upped the color saturation. I also used an artistic effect (perhaps watercolor?). I didn’t have to blur it to make it look like there was movement down the road as I took this from the passenger seat one day when we were driving Up North.
This photo of the undergirding of a train bridge over the Lansing River Trail also serves as the basis of the background on my husband’s website. I needed something urban looking, but didn’t want the graffiti to compete with the words on the cover, so I rotated the photo 90 degrees and cropped out my cover image from what is really the top of the original photo (note the dark strip of rivets to orient your brain). Then I enhanced the colors, brightened, increased contrast, and added effects to make it less photoreal and more like a painting. I put the words vertical because of all the dark rust and even dropped an article because it didn’t really fit the design (it used to be called The Memory Man). A real graphic designer could have made it work, I’m sure. I also removed distracting dots of rust from beneath the words so that the title and author name can be easily read.
Water & Light
Lastly, another very simple one. Just a matter of cropping, brightening, and placing text. This one I haven’t written yet, haven’t started at all, and have barely thought about. It may or may not end up with some subtle tie to Christmas since it will be coming out in December. The title simply came from the building that is featured in the photo (and may or may not have anything to do with the eventual story), which is the Lansing Board of Water and Light building downtown. Built in the 1930s, it is a gorgeous place with Art Deco lines and stirring murals on the lobby walls. Modern public buildings just don’t compare. Anyway, we’ll see what story I can come up with to fit the cover and title.
And that makes twelve. Twelve photos, twelve covers, twelve stories. I’m busy working on Memory Man right now. This has been such a fun year-long experiment. I highly recommend you try it if you’re struggling with consistent writing. As you write you will hone your skills and short stories are far easier to finish than novels, thus giving you that satisfying feeling of typing out the last sentence far more often. We’re getting close to the end of the year. It may be time to start thinking up some writing goals for 2014…
Along the drive to my son’s school is a block of city land devoted to nature. Surrounded on four sides by homes, a highway, and a golf course, it is nevertheless a patch of peaceful ground. This little enclave of trees and cattails and wildflowers is the haunt of ducks, herons, songbirds, rabbits, muskrats, turtles, and frogs, as well as senior citizens out on walks and health nuts getting in a run. It is lovely much of the year, but like all wooded areas in temperate zones, never so lovely as in fall.
During our frenetic and emotionally taxing week last week, I stopped for twenty minutes one morning after dropping the boy off at school to take some pictures and breathe the cool October air. I took the photos you see in this post of Great White and Blue Herons, colorful sumac leaves, mist dancing above the water, and reflections of trees in the ponds.
When I picked my son up that afternoon, I convinced him that visiting the ducks at the park would be far preferable to playing a video game or watching a TV show. We had a grand time greeting the ducks we knew (like Tucky, who is any female Mallard we encounter anywhere in the city) and naming those we were meeting for the first time (Caramel, Buttercup, Oreo, Splashy, Ducky, Woody, Shaky, etc.). We saw two muskrats and chipmunks with cheeks stuffed full of seeds.
These two stops at the park took up less than an hour of my day. But that hour did so much good to my spirit. I saw so many different species of plants and animals living in such a small space. A compact and yet complex ecosystem.
So much is packed into our lives. So many people, activities, responsibilities, diversions–all vying for attention. But in this little park nothing vied for attention. Everything waited quietly to be noticed.
The silent rabbit I saw retreating ahead of me on the path did not need to be checked off my to-do list. Berries of every hue waited patiently on the bushes for me to note their presence or to pass them by without a glance. And while it’s fun to know the species of the trees or the birds or the flowers, it’s not necessary in order to enjoy looking at them.
Surely there were creatures attempting to escape my notice entirely, like the cautious wading birds or whatever creature ducked underwater at my approach and created ringlets of tiny ripples retreating out into the pond.
I try to make it a practice to notice nature. But when life gets so terribly busy it is easy to forget that there is a world out there that is unconcerned with deadlines or what happens on the next episode of insert-show-you-obsessively-watch. A bird is only concerned with eating. A plant is not concerned about anything at all! And while I wouldn’t want to be a heron or a maple tree, no matter how carefree their existence might be, I don’t want to miss what they have to teach me about patience, silence, and stillness.
I hope you take the time for a little stroll in the woods or along a shore or in a nature center this week. The leaves are falling and this season will not last. Your project will be there tomorrow. Go take a walk.
OCTOBER by Robert Frost
I had an important realization this week as I made a big, life-changing decision (i.e., which “first day of kindergarten” photos to post on Facebook. I know, I’m still reeling from all the pressure.)
In my mind I tell myself that the pictures of my life and the life of my family should be “normal” and “pleasant.” Something you could put in a frame. Something you could send to parents and grandparents. Something like these:
So I ask my son to “smile for real” and hear a lot of “c’mons” come out of my mouth. But in reality, these are the kinds of pictures I generally end up getting the best responses to when I share them (and they’re the ones I really enjoy sharing):
Why? Because they are more interesting. They have personality. They’re truthful. We’re kind of strange and we like it that way. Not to say that we’re not a very pleasant family and even pleasing to the eye at times, but beneath that thin veneer of propriety, we’re really…well, like this:
Here’s where this parallels writing. Sometimes there’s pressure (internal or external) to make characters or stories “pleasant.” You hear from a writing group member or an agent that your character isn’t “sympathetic” enough. Or that your story is a real downer. Or “Can’t you just write a happy ending for once?”
Though he’s supportive to a fault, my husband will sometimes come to the end of a story of mine, look at me with…well…let’s say concern, and breathe out a little “Sheesh!” I actually love this reaction, but there is still a teensy-tiny part of me that starts to question…
Will people be put off by this?
Will people think I have done or would like to do some mean or immoral thing that one of my characters has done?
Will people think I’m a bad person?
Will people start avoiding me?
Will people think I have psychological problems when they read this?
Generally, I’m happy enough with the literary results of my efforts that I simply shrug, upload a new story to Amazon, and hope that people will have a good reaction to it. And in my mind, “Sheesh!” is a good reaction. Being a little creeped out is good. Feeling kind of sad is good. Feeling is good.
When stories are too pleasant, wrap up too neatly, or are just a touch too sweet, I get the groans. I’m bored or I’m unsurprised or I’m simply closing the book and never picking it up again. And you can be boring even if you have an interesting plot simply because your main characters have no faults.
Here’s a useful tool to examine your own writing. If you have to answer yes to more than two of these questions, your protagonists may be suffering from pleasantitis:
Are they always attractive (even if they don’t see it themselves)?
Do they have overly-interesting eye colors, especially involving descriptors such as “the sea on a stormy night” or “flecks of purest gold?”
Do they have gorgeous, Pantene-commercial-worthy hair even if they lived in a time when no one showered?
Do they have beautiful teeth and winning smiles even if they lived in a time when EVERYONE had bad teeth?
Do they always know what to do in a given situation?
Do they always get the girl/guy/promotion/bad guy/treasure/best cuts of meat at dinner?
See what I’m getting at here? Too much “pleasant” or “normal” or “perfect” or “happy” and the rest of us mortals can’t really identify with them. Flaws are essential. Flaws in your characters are like the conflict in your plot. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story and if there are no faults, there are no believable characters. Real flaws, not just that she has to wear glasses or he once broke someone’s heart.
How about she has a secret and almost insatiable desire to ruin her sister’s life? Or he suffers from near-crippling anxiety around his father because he fears he’ll never measure up? Or she compulsively corrects everyone’s grammar and so her friends actually loathe her? Or he neglects his own children because he’s so focused on his own advancement and amusement?
Then you take your flawed character and you find something in them, some trait or some believably terrible backstory, that will make them sympathetic without having to be perfect. (Aside: If you want an excellent example of this type of character, watch the hugely underrated movie Young Adult.)
Perfect people aren’t sympathetic. They’re kind of annoying. And anyway, they’re not really perfect either. They’re simply afraid to be real.
Be yourself. Let the real you come through your writing or art or whatever you do.
No matter how weird…
…or generally off-putting.
This is one of my favorite shots from my recent trip up to Mackinac Island. More to come later, but I wanted to share this one with you. Besides the incredible storm clouds rolling in from the Upper Peninsula, what made this photo (and the rest from this particular twenty minutes or so) such a pleasure is that no one was around when it was taken. Solitude during the peak season on Mackinac Island is hard to come by sometimes. And I really needed it that night.
We’ve recently had some lovely frosty, clear mornings in mid-Michigan and I’m glad I had my camera handy when I was dropping off my son at school.
Mornings and evenings in cold weather are what make the dark and dreary winter months more bearable, and may even lift them to a level more on par with the wonder of springtime.
There are so very many lovely things in this world, to be found in all seasons.
We woke up this morning to a beautiful dusting of light snow, though most of it is melted now. The trees are all bare, but for a few that keep their leaves rather tenaciously, like the oaks. Puts me in mind of a little poem I wrote last November I’ll share with you here.
I think that may be the last thing I painted, an entire year ago! I’ve been getting the itch to paint again, though my usual spot in the sunroom has been taken over by model trains for the winter.
The waning months of the year are when we start getting those “Top Whatever of 2012″ lists sprinkled across various media outlets, and before that silliness begins, I’m taking a moment to analyze my own year.
I’ve spent most of my free time in 2012 sewing clothes for myself, contributing to the Sew Weekly, and editing a novel. It’s been a very self-focused year. I was convicted of that this morning. As we near the beginning of Advent and the beginning of winter, I hope to turn my thoughts and efforts more toward others, which, as a writer who tends toward introversion and introspection, can sometimes be difficult to do.
I wonder if you’ve ever had the same epiphany, that your life, energy, and efforts were too focused on yourself. Assuming the world doesn’t end in a few weeks, what are you going to do differently in 2013? Where will you put your efforts? Will you spend your time entertaining yourself and thinking of ways you can further your goals? Or will you conscientiously look for ways to serve? I want to look beyond myself and I pray for the passion and focus to do so. I want to be one lone oak leaf that, in dying to self, can live in such a way that my efforts ripple outward and touch every corner of my pond.
What sort of weekend excursion should two 30-something, slightly overweight women with desk jobs take? If you said “Hike 27 miles of the rugged backcountry terrain at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore” you’d be right. We might not be the most fit people in the world, but my sister and I are rabid lovers of the outdoors and luckily don’t mind taking on a challenge in our down time.
Our reward for this was great conversation (sans interruptions by children or commentary from anyone else), fantastic scenery, and true appreciation for things like cold water, cool breezes, food in non-bar form, and soft beds and pillows. Oh, and showers.
Here are some things I learned whilst on the trail.
1. 12 miles is really about 4 miles too long for the first day.
2. If you get 40% DEET bug spray on your lip, it will start to go numb.
3. I now fully appreciate John the Baptist’s cry in the wilderness to “make His paths straight.”
4. My sister is really awesome at her very stressful job.
5. When you know you have to climb yet more inclines, you can somehow make yourself do it.
6. Michiganders are blessed with some of the most stunning scenery around, yet too few of us take the time to get out and appreciate it.
7. During the past 46 years of national park status and funding, the National Park Service has failed (or hasn’t seen the need) to put mile markers on any of the trails at Pictured Rocks. This would be helpful.
8. The ubiquitous Nanny State has yet to extend its reach to Pictured Rocks, where one can stumble around on the very edge of sandy, unstable cliffs (and, in fact, must do this in order to reach many campsites) without a railing in sight and without signing any sort of waiver. (The only rails are in place only to protect a few choice natural features from erosion. Human beings are left to their own devices or stupidity.)
9. There’s nothing quite like standing completely alone on an empty rocky shore after sunset and contemplating the vast darkness of Lake Superior.
10. When my little son is old enough, I will bring him to this amazing place.
To see more pictures from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, click here.