January musings

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I decided not to write or draw this month. (Except for this blog.) That way, I can come back down to Earth and refocus on real-life matters, like budgeting, eating better, and cleaning my apartment. This is a yearly tradition. Each January, I tune into the real world again. It’s relieving and refreshing. It’s like stepping off a high-speed treadmill and catching my breath.

The other day, my friend David Mott, pictured above, challenged me to write a short story (1,000 words or less) in one week. He said he would write one too. In one week’s time, we would meet up and read what each other had written. At first, I hesitated. Then I decided to take him up on it. But I wrote my story in just two days. On the third day, I submitted it to two magazines. After that, I returned to my “January Sabbatical.”

Since then, I’ve barely thought about the story at all. It’s bliss. Usually, when I write a piece of fiction, it consumes my mind. I spend all my time worrying about it and I consequently neglect everything else in my life — such as buying decent groceries and keeping my home clean.

But this time, it’s different. A week ago, I was cleaning and rearranging furniture and thinking of ways to manage my money. Then I knocked out a short story and went right back to those other things without ever losing sight of them.

Today, as I was walking into the mill, I thought about the original reason for my January Sabbaticals. I realized why I had started doing this thing in the first place, shutting down my creative activities in order to get re-acquainted with real-life responsibilities. It’s because, when I have a writing project (or an art project) in my life, I forget everything else. All the other areas of my life fall apart and become a pitiful train wreck. I forget to buy groceries, subsisting on McDonald’s food and vending machine trash instead. My home begins to look like a crime scene. And I don’t bother to save money. Therefore, I can only focus on one “section” of my life at a time. The creative stuff has to go out the window in order for me to focus on the important stuff.

But apparently, by the grace of God, I’m growing. I’m learning to juggle a little bit better now. For the past few years, different people in my life (particularly people at church) have mentioned the word “balance” to me. I feel like God has been urging me to lead a more balanced life. At first, I didn’t understand exactly what that meant … but now it’s becoming more clear to me. I think I’m learning to keep things balanced now.

So I might draw something before the end of the month.

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You can click here to download a copy of my new e-book, Citizens of Purgatory. It’s a novel about a young sportswriter who doesn’t know anything about sports. His life becomes dangerously complicated when a crazy drunk man crashes into the back of his car one morning.

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A drawing of Myla Laurel

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Here’s a drawing of my blogger friend, Myla Laurel, from earlier this year. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I thought I would post it again, just for the heck of it.

Yesterday, I wrote a very short children’s book and slapped it on Amazon. It’s called The Rabbit and the Rooster: A Completely Worthless Book. I wanted to see how a Microsoft Word file translates into the Kindle format. I also wanted to learn how to put together a table of contents. (The table of contents on an e-book is a fascinating little thing. It’s like the main menu on a DVD, where you choose which scene you want to skip to.) So I spit out a really stupid story and scribbled a quick “cover design” picture with a red ballpoint pen. The whole thing is just a trial run, since I’m getting ready to upload my new novel in a month or so.

Formatting a book and uploading it to Kindle is actually a lot of fun. I love writing and I love drawing, but “electronic book making” is an art/craft/skill/passion in and of itself. I can’t wait to upload the real book.

 

Something old, something new

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I’m going to keep this post short because I suddenly have a raging headache. I’ve been on vacation all week for the Fourth of July. I’ve spent most of that time working on my new book. The first draft is nearly finished now. My sketchbook has been collecting dust lately, but I did draw a picture of my friend Jill London the other night. I’m posting it here along with a wacky, abstract picture of the late Howard Finster. I drew it back in 2002. (Howard Finster was a primitive artist who lived in Pennville, Georgia. He appeared on the Johnny Carson show. I drive past his house/museum every day, but I never had the honor of meeting him.)

I hope you’re having a nice weekend. I’m going to find some sinus medicine.

The pause that refreshes

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When I first started writing, back when I was a teenager, I kept a writer’s notebook. It was one of my most cherished possessions. Every morning, while I was sitting in home room at Model High School, I would scribble in it, describing the little realizations and epiphanies I had experienced about my writing process. It was a lovely way to get my brain unclogged before I did my actual fiction writing, later in the day. It felt so good, so cathartic, to look inside my own head and psychoanalyze my writing habits, to examine my hang-ups and see what was holding me back. I haven’t done that kind of thing in a long time, but I might start doing that here — sometimes.

Here’s something I’ve pondered lately as I’ve hammered away on my new novel: it’s critical for a story to have a middle. I’ve always felt this pressure (I’m not sure exactly where the pressure comes from) to make the story move as fast as possible. I have this miserable, oppressive, overwhelming fear that I’m going to bore the reader — and all the people I come in contact with in everyday life, for that matter — so I feel this intense need to rush through the story quickly, quickly, quickly. (Also: when I was younger, I remember reading the reviews on the back covers of my favorite novels. They were loaded with phrases like “fast paced” and “page turner” and “breakneck speed.”)

Yes, it’s a valid concern. The whole point of writing fiction is to entertain people. Thus, you should try not to put your reader to sleep. It’s perfectly logical.

But I’ve realized recently that, even though a speedy pace is important, pauses are also just as important. When you’re reading a story, you need little “slow” moments, especially in the middle, that allow you to process the information you’ve learned so far. Without these pauses, the ending seems to come too quickly. It’s abrupt and premature. You hit the end of the story feeling as if you’re just crashed into a brick wall at 60 miles per hour.

Here’s something else I was thinking about the other day: when you take a long road trip, you need to pull over at a rest stop every few hours to get out of the car, stretch your legs, empty your bladder, and eat overpriced crackers from a vending machine while grumpy families stand around you, arguing about maps. The same principle holds true in a story. Occasionally, the reader should just be allowed to stop and chill — but not for too long.

I’m almost finished with the first draft of my new book. It’s not incredibly long, but it’s longer than my last book, Under the Electric Sun. In chapters 3, 4, and 5 of the new one, the reader is simply allowed to hang out with the characters. I do introduce a few important items in these chapters, things that will pop up again near the end of the story … but, overall, there isn’t much “plot stuff” happening in this middle section. (I did stuff a lot of jokes and gags into these chapters to keep the reader awake, though.)

My author/blogger friend Victoria Grefer mentioned this idea the other day, although she was making a different point. She was saying you should never overdo it and let the story come to a standstill. She said something important should always be happening, even in those slow moments. And I agree with her.

I decided to write about it here because the topic was already rolling around in my head. If you’d like to read Ms. Grefer’s post, you can click here.

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As always, you can click here to download a copy of my book, Under the Electric Sun.

(I decided to discard all the illustrations and give the book a new cover. The image above is no longer in the book.)

My picture of Jesus

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Three or four times a year, I love to check into a hotel room all by myself and spend the entire night drinking coffee, watching The Weather Channel, and drawing. It sounds insane, but it’s one of my favorite ways to relax. I look forward to it with gleeful anticipation. I’ve always found hotel rooms so refreshing. There’s no clutter in them whatsoever. The bars of soap are brand-new and neatly wrapped. The towels and wash cloths are folded with robotic precision. And then there’s The Weather Channel, with its colorful maps and soothing elevator music. It never fails to put me in a calm, serene state of mind. (Unless they’re showing “Coast Guard Alaska.” That’s always a heartbreaker.)

I feel like I do my best writing and drawing in hotel rooms. I wrote part of my science fiction novel last year (a chunk of the first chapter) during a camping trip at the Days Inn. I also drew a picture called “Stacey Texting in the Rain” while I was staying at the Motel 6 in late 2011.

A few years ago, I drew this picture of Jesus in my sketchbook while I was spending the night at a hotel. I was feeling lighthearted and whimsical at the time, so I drew him in a cartoonish style. It isn’t intended to be disrespectful or sacrilegious. I love Jesus Christ with all my heart. Since I’m reflecting on his crucifixion and resurrection this weekend, I thought it was a good time to drag this picture out and post it.

 

“It was not long afterwards that he rose into the sky and disappeared into a cloud, leaving them staring after him. As they were straining their eyes for another glimpse, suddenly two white-robed men were standing there among them, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring at the sky? Jesus has gone away to heaven, and some day, just as he went, he will return!'”

Acts 1:9-11

The Living Bible

Illustration angst

One of the characters in my book is supposed to have a dark complexion. That’s how I described her in the narrative. I did six illustrations for the book, beginning last summer and finishing up last month. Yes, that does seem like a long time for just six pictures. But I did them in colored pencil. (I also re-wrote the book twice during that period.) One illustration is a picture of this particular character, the one with the dark complexion, standing all by herself and smiling warmly at the viewer. Basically, it’s just a portait — a portrait of a fictional person.

A couple of days ago, out of the blue, I realized that I didn’t make her skin dark enough. Or I suddenly thought I didn’t, anyway. I had drawn her with jet-black hair and dark eyes, but her skin wasn’t really very dark. 

I started feeling jittery and uncomfortable about the whole situation last night, the way I always do when I find a new thing to worry about. So I sat down on the couch and worked until about four o’clock in the morning, trying to make her skin a richer shade of brown.

I should have left the stupid thing alone. Whenever I put a dark color on top of a light color, it never goes on smoothly. I know that. I don’t know what I was thinking. The dark color and the light color always mix together like oil and water. In other words, they don’t. Now the girl’s skin has a rough, grainy texture. Her face looks like it’s made of oatmeal. I went to sleep feeling angry, disappointed, and defeated.

Luckily, I scanned the drawing a month ago when I first “finished” it. The earlier version is still in my computer, so I can use it like I was originally planning to. And it really doesn’t look that bad anyway.

My good friend Trisha told me I’m just worrying too much because it’s almost time to upload the book to Kindle. I think she’s right.

A little muscle under my left eye has been twitching all day long. I think I need some sleep.