Lessons We Can Learn Halfway to Black Belt

Last weekend our son was awarded his red belt in karate (which is just our shorthand for the real name of the marital arts system he practices — the American Advanced Combat System — which was developed by Sensei Dan Timlin and is based on Bruce Lee’s system of Jeet Kune Do). At his dojo, this means he has moved up to the advanced class, and he’s still just six years old.

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When we started him in martial arts about a year and a half ago (largely due to his obsession with TMNT and ninja stuff in general) we talked to him about the investment of time and money it would entail, about how when we start something, we don’t just quit when we get bored or tired of it.

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We needn’t have said a word about it because his enthusiasm and dedication has not waned one iota. The young guy next to him in the photos above and below is one of his instructors. He’s a fantastic teacher and incredible to watch on the academy’s demonstration team. He was just sixteen when Calvin started as a white belt in the basic class. He started at the dojo at age eight. When Calvin is eight, he will already be a black belt. When I think of my son someday being able to do the things that this young man does, I get giddy with anticipated pride.

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Now, I’m posting about this partially to share my joy in my son’s dedication and his achievements. But it’s not all about bragging (it is a little about bragging).

It’s also about persistence and drive and dedication to an art. It’s so easy to start something big and then quit when we feel like we’re not making enough progress. Calvin could have watched his teacher do incredible takedowns and disarms and flying kicks and thought to himself, “I’ll never be able to do that. It looks too hard and I don’t think I’m fast enough or strong enough.” But he didn’t. He saw some majorly cool moves and thought to himself, “I want to do that.” And then patient and caring teachers came alongside him and said, “You can do that — but it takes discipline, training, and focus, and we’ll help you get there.”

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And his parents came alongside and gave him encouragement, took him to practice three nights a week, reinforced the lessons he was learning at the dojo, trained with him at home. Because while in some ways martial arts are an individual sport, no one learns best in complete isolation.

What about you? Are you trying to write all on your own? Trying to figure out your camera all on your own? Trying to figure out how to make a certain effect in a painting or Photoshop or a recipe all on your own? What are you trying to do solo that would be easier if you had support, if you had a teacher or a more experienced friend who could answer your questions?

It’s tempting to do art alone, especially if you’re an introvert. And there are plenty of opportunities to practice alone, and that’s not bad. But who do you have who can encourage you and help you adjust your technique if you’re doing it wrong or perhaps just not the easiest or most efficient way?

When I went out to take pictures of the aurora on Saint Patrick’s Day, it was a friend who told me that the aurora was active. That same friend was there when I had questions about how best to photograph them because he and I once had almost the exact same camera. There were a few things I had to figure out by myself, but he was there on the other end of the phone when I had questions. And when I posted a photo on Facebook, he was the first to compliment me on it. How encouraging!

In my writing, I have two great groups of writers who can encourage me to stick it out when the going gets rough and who can share expertise and advice. One is online (Women’s Fiction Writers Association) and one is in the flesh (Capital City Writers Association). Another writing community that is so instructive and encouraging is Writer Unboxed. Beyond that, my husband and a few close friends serve as encouragers, first readers, and sounding boards.

You can do so much more and so much better work when you have a community of like-minded individuals supporting you. If you quilt, join a quilting group or guild. If you paint, organize outings to paint plein air. If you love to bake, create your own informal school or throw a recipe sharing party. If you write poetry, find a local place that can host readings and put the word out to poets in your area. If you’re a musician, schedule a jam session.

When things get tough and your art won’t cooperate or you’ve faced rejection, that’s when you need support. And you’ll find that if you cultivate a community intentionally, that support will be there for you the moment you need it. Those people will keep you from quitting, they’ll celebrate your successes with you, they’ll help you grow, and they’ll feed your desire to succeed.

Your initial passion and intensity may come from within…

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…but you can bet that it’s easier to maintain when others are there to hold you up.

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Reclaiming an Occasional Hobby

Lately, I seem to have rabbits on the brain. I recently read a long interview with the now elderly Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, the book that anchored my childhood reading. A friend’s rabbit surprised her by having kittens (which is what baby rabbits are called–it didn’t spontaneously produce baby cats). One of those little baby bunnies has gone to live with another friend. And of course this is the time of year Midwesterners start pining for spring and all that comes with it–warm sun, flowers, rabbits munching the new grass. We know it will be long in coming, but…can’t we have dreams too?

Anyway, all this ruminating on rabbits reminded me that I had planned to mosaic a little half-circle table that I saved from a neighbor’s dumpster with the image of a rabbit poised in mid-leap. Maybe now’s a good time to start moving on that project. So this morning I quickly sketched up what I’m thinking.

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Mosaic is the perfect mid-winter project–indoors, slightly tedious, and you come away from it with something beautiful. I’ve got a few manuscripts for work that I need to listen to. Making a mosaic at the same time would be a lovely way to get double use out of the time. So if you’re looking for me next month, you’ll probably find me in the sunroom, snapping little porcelain tiles into smaller pieces and arranging them in such a way as to suggest a rabbit where before, there was nothing.

Writing for Our Better Selves

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These are the first lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a poem in nine books which was particularly beloved of Emily Dickinson. I’m just diving in to my copy, an 1884 printing of the 1859 text. This quote strikes me, a professional copywriter who is ever writing for others, as a lovely, selfish thought. That is what my fiction is–writing for me, for my better self.

My Mind Full and My Pen at the Ready

The scales have tipped, the tumblers in the lock have fallen into place, the dominoes are all lined up and the finger is making contact with the very first one.

What am I talking about? My next novel.

Next novel? But you haven’t even published your first one. Yes, that’s true. But writers write. And this next one, which I hope will be my second to be published (eventually), has been brewing in my mind since the day after I typed “The End” at the bottom of my last manuscript. And on Thursday night, a key plot element was birthed in my mind like a baby star and I am just about ready to really start writing.

Since early March, I have been feeding my mind a steady diet of classic literature in preparation for writing this next novel, and a few weeks ago I finally picked up this beautiful book, a gift last Christmas…

dickinsonI’m smitten anew and excited to say that Emily Dickinson’s life, spirit, and poetry will get a major nod in the novel. In fact, the backbone of the story is constructed of books and poems, the kind that stay with us throughout our lives and to which we return again and again. It is precisely the kind of story the English major in me can hardly believe she will be privileged to write–one that celebrates our vast body of literature in English, makes a case for the singular importance of the printed book, and traces how our identities are wrapped up in what we read at formative points in our lives.

I’m so excited to get started, I don’t know that I will be able to wait until NaNoWriMo, which I had been thinking of attempting for the third time. And if I cheat, I simply could not wear a t-shirt like this with any sense of integrity…

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And this is kind of how I feel about that shirt…

napoleon-dynamite-gifWill patience prevail? Only time will tell.

 

Fear, Courage, and What Makes Your Writing Stand Out

My workshop at the Breathe Writers Conference was on rewriting and revision. I had so much I wanted to cover and not enough time to do it, thus I was forced to truncate my closing remarks. I’m sharing them here in full.

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Sometimes as we are revising, we run across something in our own writing that makes us uncomfortable. A bit of truth that slipped out when we weren’t watching. Maybe we let a character say something shockingly true. We read it later and are stunned that it came from within our minds and hearts. We think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that, shouldn’t let my character say it.”

In the novel I’ve been working on this year, the overarching theme is the really the sovereignty of God—that everything that happens, including the tragic and awful, happens within His will and is part of His plan for our lives for a reason. That theme is played out in the stories of three women. Two of these storylines focus heavily on race, one during the Civil War, another during the Civil Rights era. In writing about the way white people in this country have viewed and treated black people over the decades, in writing about prejudice and lynching and rioting, and in writing about interracial relationships and marriage, I have had plenty of opportunities to censor myself. There have been many times I’ve thought, “People think this way, people say things like this—but will readers think that’s me? Will they think I think that way?” No one wants to be seen as racist.

And on the other hand, there was a powerful pull to remain politically correct, to treat black characters only as victims. Besides the fact that this is an incredibly demeaning label to put on an entire race, when you look at individual lives, not everyone in this world is a victim. (And victims often make the most uninteresting characters in fiction.) One of the climactic scenes is of the Detroit Riots of 1967. As a writer I could not escape from the fact that that scene included young black men destroying property, stealing, swearing, and even shooting at firemen who were trying to keep the neighborhood those same young men lived in from burning down. But a privileged white woman writing about poor, unemployed black men committing crimes? Is that allowed? Or can only African Americans comment on such an event? I was in high school and college during the 1990s, so I have to fight against near-constant “political correctness” indoctrination rearing its head, because all the PC movement ever did was bury issues under a veneer of civility where they continued to fester, ready to explode because they are never resolved.

In fact, in order say anything worth saying about the reality and experience of racism in the North, I had to avoid both extremes of piling on the white guilt and portraying black characters as victims. That’s been done to death. And in between those two extremes is where we find truth—and truth is never without tension. There’s a lot of fear in writing about explosive topics like race, war, the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of the union of husband and wife. And yet those explosive topics are important. And if we censor ourselves in the public square or the intellectual square, we allow others to set the trajectory of our culture.

In revision, sometimes the things that you feel most strongly that you should delete are the things you should keep. When you feel you should censor yourself because of what a reader (often a very specific one, like your mother or spouse or a friend) might think of you, that’s when you should stop, take a deep breath, and move on. Leave that bit in there. That’s what makes your writing interesting, original, individual, and worth keeping. Deep down, we know that the things that frighten us a little or surprise us—those are the things that actually are saying something. The moments we allow ourselves to really say what we mean—those are the things that really need to be said.

Betsy Lerner, in her excellent book The Forest for the Trees, said it this way:

“If you dream of having your work stay alive beyond your tenure on earth, if you hope to see it beside the unforgettable voices that are part of our literary diaspora, then you must be fearless in every aspect of your writing. . . . Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it. That they find it exquisite or revolting…‘Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like and cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.’ Throw off the shackles of approval. . . . if your book causes a commotion, even the negative kind, you will have made a platform for yourself, something very few writers ever attain. . . . You cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes through half measures.”

Yes, if you run across a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter that you realize just doesn’t do anything, chop it out of there! It’s dead weight! But if you feel the pull to remove something because it’s uncomfortable or you fear the criticism of others, and yet that part of your work does further your story and does give your reader deeper insight into a character—or into the human condition—be brave. Keep it. Leave it in. That’s the thing that readers will remember. That’s the thing that will make readers sit up straight and listen—because you are someone with something important to say.

Don’t edit out of fear. Don’t edit to protect yourself. Edit to make that shocking truth, that encapsulation of reality hit home even harder. Edit to make that meaning crystal clear.

Because things that need to be said are often those things we wish to hide–about ourselves, about others, about our glorious, messed-up world.

The Thrill of that First Paragraph

This morning as I drove home from dropping my son off at school, I found my mind working on words. I’ve been thinking about and taking notes on a new novel since the very day I wrote the last word of the first draft of my last novel. But I couldn’t start anything new at the time. I wasn’t mentally ready. I was still embroiled in the last plot, the last set of characters, the last setting. Which is good, because I still had revising and editing to do!

So I just let things start percolating in my mind and committed only notes to paper. I started to do some background reading for the new novel idea. I tested the idea out on a few friends and got instant and enthusiastic validation (thank you Zach, Valerie, and Ted) as well as great plot ideas. These friends were immediately excited about the story idea and their synapses began firing. What if this happened? What if that happened? One friend, also a writer, said, “This has legs. I want to write the screenplay when you’re done with it.”

I don’t think I have to tell you that I wanted to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys) right then and there. I couldn’t, of course, mainly because I was driving 75 mph, but also because the idea was in its infancy. It needed more time. I needed more space from the manuscript I had just finished.

Then this morning, the first sentence wormed its way into my mind. Then the next. Then the next. And I ended up with 126 mood- and scene-setting words that can usher me into this new story. It’s a great feeling. The feeling of something new and never-before-seen. It continues to amaze me that we humans can take our thoughts, put them into words, string letters together to make words and words to make sentences and sentences to make stories. Something that doesn’t exist comes slowly into being. And it’s all made up of 26 arbitrary black marks on a white page.

It’s truly thrilling and it remains for me some of the most convincing evidence that this world came about and we came about as the product of an endlessly creative mind rather than a chaotic string of random events, and that we bear the mark of our Maker.

You didn’t know I sew? Don’t feel bad. I just remembered myself.

Ten days and no posts? Unheard of. So you know I’m busy. I’m busy with work, spring break, editing, writing. And I’m busy making a new dress for Easter. It’s going to be big.

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Big skirt. Big flowers. Big color.

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And it’s kind of a big deal to me since it’s been two years since I made a new Easter dress (last year I wore one I’d made previously for no particular occasion).

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And it’s been simply too long in general since I sewed anything. I think I needed a bit of a break after I sewed all of this in 2012:

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But break’s over. Time to get busy.

In the Dead of Winter, Life Still Stirs

This is the view through my 75-year-old windows lately.

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Some of these patterns put me in mind of coral–appropriate in a part of the world that was once the bottom of an ocean. In summer we gather fossilized coral. In winter, it graces our living room window panes.

It has been a ferocious winter, one that still has the Great Lakes State firmly in its icy grip. But while the windows may be frosty and the ground still covered in snow, beneath it all the earth prepares for spring. Squirrels are fornicating in the back yard. Birds are twittering in the pile of sticks that has been stacked up by the side of the road since the ice storm a month ago. The buds of this year’s growth already grace the bare branches of trees and shrubs. In fact, looking at that last frost photo, I kind of see those bud-studded branches right there in the ice.

And within my mind is a steady running stream of story that my fingers are faithfully putting down into words.

How 12 Ordinary Photos Became 12 Eye-Catching Ebook Covers

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

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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.

The Door

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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

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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

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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.

Clean

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Drive

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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.

Memory Man

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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

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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…

Kill Your Smart Phone

Tomorrow afternoon I will be leading a workshop at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference on developing a writing rhythm. I’ll talk about the importance of carving out consistent time to write and a space (or spaces) in which to do it. But the most crucial part of the discussion will be on what I’m calling creative sustenance, what others may call “feeding your muse.” And I realized in the course of preparing for this discussion that I have developed a holistic hatred of cell phones in general and smart phones in particular.

I’ve never enjoyed talking on the phone to anyone beyond my husband when we are apart (which really doesn’t happen nowadays, but it certainly did back when I was still in high school and he was off at college already) and I do enjoy an occasional call from a far-flung friend.

Honestly, though, it’s not phone calls that irritate me so much. It’s constant texting, email checking, and web-surfing rather than a.) paying attention to the real person who is talking to you right now, showing just how anti-social social media really makes us, or b.) paying attention to the world around so that you don’t, say, get hit by my Explorer or, heaven forbid, notice the way the trees are swaying or that lonely old man sitting by himself in the corner. Also, there’s that incredible phenomenon of people watching movies on phones or tablets, in public, without headphones. When did that become acceptable?

But for the writer the danger is really point B, and not necessarily because of the possibility of getting run over. It’s because to write about real life you need to pay attention to real life. If it hasn’t already happened, I’m sure someone will make a literary splash at some point for writing a novel entirely in texts, but for most real stories populated with real characters living in a real setting (all of which need to be conveyed in precise words on a page/screen) you have to PAY ATTENTION to the stuff that is real.

If you’re an artist of any kind and you find your well of creativity is running dry, it may be because you’ve been looking at little beyond a screen for too long. Get out in real life and engage. Talk to that old man in the corner. Something he says or the expression that crosses his face will likely inspire you to write a novel or a screenplay or a short story. Look at the tops of those trees swaying in the breeze and imagine what happens on a day where wind blows and leaves wrench themselves from branches and go skittering down the road.

Readers need you to notice for them (because they’re all staring at their little electronic idols too). And you can’t point out beauty and sadness and truth to them if you don’t see it yourself.