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Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A VALENTINE'S GIFT FOR THE SENSES

It’s Valentine’s Day this month and with it comes thoughts of all the things I love: my family and friends, homemade Valentine cards from my grandchildren (take note Tiger Mom) and bacon. Yes, bacon! When I take a package of bacon out of the refrigerator it feels limp and fatty to the touch. As it goes into a hot pan I hear it sizzle. The smell of bacon cooking fills the kitchen with a delicious aroma. I watch as the fat melts away and the strips of bacon turn golden brown and crispy.  And the taste of bacon can’t be beat, especially alongside a pile of scrambled eggs or in a BLT sandwich. So how is bacon important to our writing? It reminds us to use lots of sensory details! In her book, WRITING FOR CHILDREN & TEENAGERS, Lee Wyndham says, “All that we know about our world, whatever our age, has been learned through our five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell-and the “sixth sense”- our reaction to what the other five have told us.” And she adds, “Use words which will create images in the minds of readers for whom your writing is intended.” In the beautiful Caldecott winning book, Owl Moon, by Jan Yolen, she writes: “Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.”  She also writes, “My mouth felt furry, for the scarf over it was wet and warm.” Here are two Valentine’s Day gifts I hope will delight your senses.

A BLT Sandwich
Ingredients: 2 slices of bread, four strips of uncooked bacon, a flat pan, some chopped lettuce, a couple slices of tomato and mayonnaise (or other creamy dressing.)

Here’s what you do: Fry the bacon in the pan until browned and crispy. Drain the bacon on a paper towel. Spread mayo on one slice of bread. Layer on the bacon, lettuce and tomato. Top with the second slice of bread. Makes one sandwich.

Coffee Filter Flower Bouquet
1 basket style drip coffee filter
A clean spray bottle filled with water
Washable markers
Green pipe cleaner
Ribbon

Use markers to scribble a design onto the filter. Lightly spray the filter with water so the colors run together. Allow the filter to dry. Fold up the edges of the filter. Pinch the center together and wrap with a pipe cleaner. Tie a ribbon around a bunch of flowers for a bouquet.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Writer's Place: Musings on Workspaces

I'm filling in today for Fran, who was lucky enough to escape the gray Pittsburgh winter for a few days. She'll share her magical writing space in the country when she returns.

I've especially enjoyed this month's theme and the opportunity to peek into the places where so many talented people create. I've long recognized that I'm a voyeur of sorts - like many writers, I like to listen in on conversations in restaurants, observe the behavior of others in stores and airports, and stare at old photos of people I've never met and wonder about their lives. And, as it turns out, I especially like to look behind the scenes at the private worlds of writers. I'm grateful that I've been able to glean ideas useful for my own work processes (like Jenny's magic board and Susan's project subfolders) and studio (I'm drooling over Carol H.'s colorful bins and lovely antiques).  Most of all, though, I'm grateful for the reassurance that I'm not alone! Lots of other fabulous writers work amongst clutter, and even a bit of disorder. Thank you all!

Perhaps my biggest take-away, though, has been a reminder that writing can happen anywhere. You don't need an expensive or perfectly arranged office, top of the line electronics and fancy gadgets, or even utter peace and quiet. All you need are the simplest of tools - a pen or pencil, some scraps of paper, a place to park your body - and focus. Which is why I've spent some time the last few days putting pen to paper in my comfy chair. And when the dog barks or the phone rings, I just remind myself that Scott Turow wrote the bestseller Presumed Innocent on the train while riding back and forth to his job as an attorney - and my distractions are minor compared to those on a commuter train.

Still, if you're like me - you might feel like lusting over more writers' studios anyhow. So here are some extra resources.

The UK's Guardian has an unbelievably fabulous series on the workspaces of creative people (mostly writers but also some illustrators and musicians), both historic and contemporary. You can check out the little table and chair where Jane Austen penned her classics or the interesting shed where Roald Dahl worked or dozens of other intriguing work rooms.

Check out the interesting (and often funny) book above by the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (among others). It details Pollan's design and construction of a really lovely backyard writing shed - despite his complete lack of architecture and carpentry skills. Along the way, he muses about lots of other topics too.

The blog Apartment Therapy features workspaces pretty regularly. Here's a recent roundup of of at-home writing areas.

Photographer Jill Krementz has created this wonderfully evocative photo essay of the rooms where many prominent writers penned or typed their beloved tomes.

I also love Jo Packham's book Where Women Create. She has a whole series of related books - tasty eye candy and also good ideas to borrow.

And finally, if you're still craving somewhere away from home to get some work done (and you live in or near the right cities), check out the writing spots available to rent inexpensively through the organization The Writer's Room.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Meter Maid's Misplaced Work Space


I do not rhyme at desk or chair
or bench or table anywhere.
I find that I rhyme best instead
                                                           with pad and pencil in my bed.
It's not like we don't have two tables and three desks at our house, I just can't stand to write that way.  I get my three staples: rhyming dictionary, international thesaurus, and unabridged dictionary first. Then I add any other miscellaneous books I might need. Recently I was using a bunch of mythology and cryptozoology reference books. I  got those from my handy bookcase full of everything from Dr. Seuss to Dr. Spock. And by the way, my unabridged dictionary doubles as a place to put my tea due to its hefty size.  I can write for hours there and am not distracted by anything. Well, not distracted by anything in the room.  I had a bit of a diversion today looking up another word for the color brown in the thesaurus. There were 228 other brownness words! And one of them was "piccolopasso" and that got me on a whole other tack...
It all goes on paper until the first draft is done and then and only then does it wind up on my laptop. Which then literally is in my lap since I have that desk aversion going on.  I keep thinking that someday I might want an office, but not so far. This bed thing is working well for me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Road Warrior Organization

Like Susan below, nearly all of my writing stuff is on my laptop computer. For my day job, I work in environmental consulting. I have a MacBookPro that I can take when I travel (like I am right now) and then plug into a super large screen so I can work with several documents at once side-by-side. I also have all of my writing stuff on this computer, but when I get around to my own writing, I usually don't want to sit at a desk. I pile my books around me and keep track of it all on my computer. I work on 3 types of books - picture books, a novel, and nonfiction, but right now I am very much focused on nonfiction because I'm doing a series of books for Nomad Press on the Geology and Geography of the United States (divided into regions). Here's my Finder with my basic folders and one of my chapters on the Columbia Intermontane behind it:



In each of my chapter folders I dump all kinds of stuff: pdfs of maps and pictures, articles I find, notes I've taken from books, early drafts.

For nonfiction, I use the internet a lot. I use it to give me ideas, help me find books that will be useful, sources of maps or other images, and also as references. For this particular series, the USGS website is very useful. But it's such a big site with so many pages, that I want to bookmark the ones I find particularly helpful and may want to include for further interest or as a reference. I keep the bookmarks in folders, usually just by general book and not by chapter. Here's what my screen looks like with bookmarks in my Safari browser.



And here's one of the bookmarked sites open (with gorgeous graphics of the San Andreas fault and tectonic movements through time...I love you USGS...)



Since I'm traveling, I can't take pictures of my home office setup, but I'll try to add that tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Too Much Organization Can Be Hazardous!

I’m not a “techie” and have had a number of computer mishaps, crashes, and malfunctions. In the old days – sixteen years ago – when I first began writing I used to print out my manuscripts. I store them in colorful bins I found at Wal-mart.

Then, several years ago, I discovered the flash drive! I’m not saying I’m paper-free, but flash drives have made my life easier. I have a number of them secreted in various places around my study. And, as I begin my next novel, I plan on getting another one. Even so, I can’t function without my notes, research papers, time-lines, and research books. But maybe it’s time to get some of those notes off my desk?


The piano might be a good place to put my notes. Hmmm. I did want the piano out of my study, but then where would I lay out my timeline?


Oh, that’s right. I have this nifty desk with its reference shelf below, just for that purpose. But if I move the timeline here, where will I put my research papers?


OK, I could put those papers on the coffee table. But, wait; I’ve already got reference books there!

Temporarily, I could stack my reference books on the couch. Yikes, Brutus wouldn’t like that! He might even take back his consent to use his name in my novel!


OK, soooo books go on bookshelves. I COULD put the reference books in the bookcase. But WHERE in the bookcase can I put them?


No, I will not say I have too many books. I just won’t! I know; time to get another bookcase! IKEA, here I come! H . . . E . . . double hockey sticks! I’ll have to get rid of the piano to make room for the new bookcase! You know, I’m just going to forget the whole thing. Too much organization is detrimental to my creative mind. Better to just ignore everything and write!

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Frequent Flyer's Workspace


This Eee PC notebook is my writing desk, my book shelf, and my file cabinet. Such a tiny workspace—massive capacity for storage, plus an almost infinite potential for disorder. Here are some of my methods for keeping things tidy:


First comes the PROJECT FOLDER. I create a project folder for every idea I get, no matter how embryonic or sketchy or idle or impractical. (A number of these folders are nearly empty.)

As soon as an idea becomes an active project, the folder begins to fill up. I open files for individual scenes, chapters, sections, and (much later) full drafts. I also create auxiliary files, as I need them. Here are auxiliary files that appear in every project folder:

Dumps
. I can be a ruthless self-editor, because when it comes to anything of size (or anything I particularly love), I never really delete. I dump, into the project's Dumps file. If I need to restore that passage later, or to adapt that apt image or bit of dialogue for some other use, it's there. Occasionally I skim through this file, the way one might go through one's discarded costume jewelry, in case some forgotten treasure suddenly looks fresh and useful.

Save the Cat. Here I build my story arc, using the template devised by Blake Snyder for his book of that name. For many reasons, which I'll blog about sometime, I find this story template the most useful ever.

Genre Elements. Here I list elements common to books I admire in the same genre and age range as my project. The list provides guidance when I'm structuring, and reminders and refreshers later on.

Threads. A sloppy, scribbly file where I track relationship or theme arcs.

Notes. Brainstorms and random thoughts, as well as all the critiques from readers along the way. As a project gets longer, this file turns into a bunch of files, with names like "Notes on 03 03 10," "Notes on Part I," and "Notes on the whole."

Synopsis. A running file of notes, sketches, and drafts of what will finally be the Synopsis. Similarly, I keep files named Query and Elevator Pitch.

Working Files. Frequently I isolate a short scene to work on it. I move it to an individual file with a name like "Working File spelling bee scene." Into it I paste all the notes and sketches that relate to the scene (from my Save the Cat outline, Threads file, and various Notes files). Somehow this way to see everything at once works better for me than opening a bunch of windows. Once the scene is polished to my liking, I copy it back to the main text file. Then I move the Working File into a NOTES ALREADY ENTERED sub-folder.

Which means it's time to describe the sub-folders that longer projects require:

NOTES ALREADY ENTERED. Here I store old Notes files, after I've entered or rejected all the notes in them. (To make sure I don't overlook any notes, I score through each after I deal with it.) I also keep old Working Files here . . . just in case. (Have I mentioned my addiction to revising? And my fear of losing data, even though I back everything up thrice?) When the project is finished, the last file to move to this folder would be Dumps.

RESEARCH. In research-light projects, this might be a single file, not a sub-folder. I scan, cut-and-paste, or just type stuff in. (Of course, I use actual books, too, but most of them belong to libraries.)

SUBMITS. Immutable files of any samples I've submitted for critiques or contests.

OLD DRAFTS. Now and then a project changes so radically that I need this sub-folder so I don't confuse the old stuff from the new.

Friday, January 14, 2011

New Year's Writing Resolutions

Home office

2011 Resolutions:

  1. Keeping my office space clean
  2. Writing every day
  3. Meeting deadlines


Keeping my office space clean:

Do you find that when your office space and home are clean and organized, you feel better? I know I do. But it’s so difficult to keep it that way. I worked really hard the last few weeks to clean up my office spaces. Yes, I work in many spaces. I have my home office, although I often work at the table by the fire in the winter, my office at work, where I help run the day to day operations in my family’s plumbing business and often at Panera. Out of the three, I like Panera the best because I’m more focused when I physically leave my house. Plus, I don’t have to clean my booth or do the dishes at Panera.

Work Office

Writing every day:

I want to make a better effort to write every day at the same time. Ideally, I like to get up no later than 6:00 a.m. and have two solid hours of writing before my kids get up. Often times though, as soon as the coffee is made, my four-year old is bounding down the steps ready to start his day. I have to make a better effort to have Playdoh or crafts or something else ready for him to play, otherwise, the writing gets put aside. On the days my younger son has preschool, I go to Panera and work for two hours, then drive into my work office. I commute a half and hour to and from work every day. During that time, I try to plot out scenes and work out problems I’m having with a particular scene or a character. When I park, I jot down a few notes in my writing notebook that I always keep in my book bag. I keep a binder at my desk with my current draft and all of my notes. I like Jenny’s “Magic” board and may try to create something similar to help me keep focused.


Draft binder
Meeting deadlines:
Typically, I try to write or revise one scene per week. I am in the process now of revising a young adult novel, and I’m going to try to push myself to revise two completed scenes per week. If I can follow that revision schedule, I should be able to complete this revision by June. I have set up my outlook calendar with my weekly goals so I have a constant reminder to stay on track. It’s so easy to get stuck on a problem chapter, but if I have I constant nagging electronic reminder, it will help me complete the project on time. 

The three goals sound simple enough on paper, but I have to stick to them to make it work. And as I’m trying to de-clutter my spaces, my next project should really be the closet that houses all of my old manuscripts. Do I really need all the drafts of a manuscript I wrote ten years ago? Maybe.



Old manuscript cupboard


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chaos... Or not?


The other day my son was helping me with some paperwork that I store in my workstation. "It's pure chaos here," he said. "Bulldoze it. You don't need this stuff anyway. You'll never use it."

"Organized chaos," I tried to explain.
When he just shook his head and smiled, I knew he wasn't buying it.
With that said, I figured I'd ask for a few unbiased opinions. Chaos or not?
Max and his shoephone.
First though, I need to explain that the word "chaos" doesn't necessarily conjure up a whole world of negativity for me. It reminds me of the 1960s zany television show "Get Smart" where the evildoers in the underworld organization "CHAOS", (supposedly Russia's Secret Service, the KGB) were bent on destroying all of our freedoms. I spent many evenings laughing at the show's crazy antics and far out plots. The characters were great, too. I'll never forget Max, the clumsy and bumbling special agent known as Agent 86 and the top-secret telephone he hid in his shoe. He had a real nose for disaster, finding trouble where there was none, creating havoc out of calm, sidestepping every major issue before the real one smacked him in the face. Yet, when all was said and done, Max tied up all the loose ends so that everyone was safe to live another day.
The second piece of information you might need to know to make a decision as to why I store all my papers in such a confined space is that I get around in a wheelchair since a 1983 diving accident, and although I'm 6'2" tall, my reach doesn't extend very far.
So, okay. Now I’ll get back to the point. My workstation. Is it pure chaos or not?
Look closely at the picture. Did someone just call me Agent 86? It isn't that bad... is it? Or have you been talking to my son? Let me explain what's in my workspace and what I do with it before you pass final judgment.
Pictures. Tons of them. All there to remind me of how lucky I am to have so many caring people in my life. I keep them close to me so that when I think times are tough, perhaps when I can't figure out where my story is going, I realize I'm not so unlucky after all. Without the special people in my life, none of the writing I do would be worth it.
My one line synopsis... While exploring a pitch black coal mine,
fifteen year old Matthew Kowalski discovers a deeper darkness,
the secrets and lies that have ripped apart his family.
Mixed in with those images is the premise and a one line synopsis of my story, written neatly in large letters as a reminder of where I need to go with my story. It serves as my focus, my straightaway through the twisting turns of my novel.
The huge stack of papers to the right is a copy of the latest draft (number eight) of the current novel I'm revising. I want to be able to access all the correction notes scribbled within... well, most of the time anyway.
Having a printer nearby might seem an obvious necessity, but I don't use it as often as I used to (for printing out the papers anyhow). I bring my laptop computer, or my new handy-dandy IPad when I go to my critique groups. Believe it or not, this process allows for a lot less clutter around my workstation. Of course, the printer still has a useful purpose. (Take a closer look at the right-hand corner of the photo.) It's wide, flat top of allows me to store a few older, shorter stories I've written and notes from many of the conferences I've attended throughout the years. And when the stack gets too high, as it is now, I simply shove them beside the printer. (Or, as seen here in another picture, shoved into the cupboard with the rest of my rough drafts... I guess I still don't completely trust technology to save all of my work.)
My rough drafts... and a few extra supplies.
My telephones are nearby, too. I can't ignore or avoid answering all the calls when I'm working. I do hate getting interrupted in the middle of a thought though? Don't you?
The staples I need (see list below) are somewhere on the desk. Can you find them?
Where's Waldo?...  uh…. er…. Where Are Dave Supplies?
Books, pens, staples, paper clips, writing paper, ink, staple remover, index cards, address labels, backup CDs with copies of all my work, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Junior and EB White, The Elements of Editing, a Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists by Arthur Plotnick
Dictating madly away.
Last but not least, especially for me, is the headset you see me wearing. No. It's not for listening to music. I can't concentrate too well that way. It's for the voice activation software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, (see link to website below) that I use. Without that, I'd be lost. It's taken me from an extremely rotten two-fingered typist (using specially adapted splints given to me when I was first injured... still seen here on my workstation desk), to someone who can get the words onto paper almost as fast as they come into my head. I'll give a more detailed explanation of the benefits of the voice activation software some other entry.
Have you reached your verdict yet? Am I more like Agent 86, the bumbling, stumbling star of the show "Get Smart"? Is my area pure chaos as my son seems to think? Or do I pass the test of someone who is somewhat organized? Like Max, have I managed to tie the loose ends neatly together? You decide. And let me know.

Monday, January 10, 2011

My 'Magic' Board: Getting Started

Last May, Marcy and I drove to Cleveland to attend a session on YA novels held by the Northern Ohio SCBWI chapter. The 2 ½ hour drive was well worth our time and gas $$. This is a really active chapter and several members of the Rt19Writers hope to attend more of the Northern Ohio events (www.nohscbwi.org ).
            We met some great people at the presentation, including author Rebecca Barnhouse, who gave a terrific talk about developing plot. Although everyone has a shelf full of books on how-to-write-a-novel, nothing beats a concise 45 minute presentation to remind you of what's important to focus on at the beginning of a story.
            Everyone starts story development in their own unique way – some people make outlines, some just jump in and start writing. I use my "Magic Board" (as Fran calls it), an approach I picked up in screenwriting class with Kitty and Lee. Here's what my board looks like for the YA novel I'm working on:


 

For people who think visually, colored 3x5 notecards are a perfect tool. Once a story idea begins to take over and push other useful thoughts out of my brain, like making a grocery list for the week, it's time to flesh out the idea to see if it's got enough substance for 275+ pages. I jot down a few key questions on blue cards and tape them to a cork bulletin board (I don't like to use push pins because they always fall out and I step on them. Writing's painful enough without drawing actual blood). I've incorporated notes from Rebecca's talk into this process:
Who is the MC (main character)? How old, gender, race, name, personality & quirks, IQ, home life, etc. 
The other blue card asks questions like:
What does the MC want, and why can’t he have it?
Is it an internal or external problem; is he aware of it or not?
What is his flaw?

"Answers" and thoughts about these questions are jotted down on white cards below the blue cards.

The Yellow card reminds me to think about possible Macro and Micro structures for the book. For example, if a book is written entirely with diary entries or as a travelogue, that's the Macro structure. The Micro structure nudges me that each section, such as a chapter, has to have an arc with a beginning , middle and end, just like the overall book.

(The green card on the top is a special reminder that 'the acquisition of knowledge is key to the plot.' Usually I use purple for special notes to me, but I ran out.)

The green cards in a row set up the 3-Act structure and turning points:

ACT 1: Show MC's world before the 1st Turning Point or 'Change" occurs, so you can understand and get to know MC and his flaws.




TURNING POINT #1:  MC encounters an agent of change or "an inciting event".  This starts the transformation of MC. MC will resist this change.  (Note: in some books, the inciting event is hidden and unfolds during the story, like the initial attack in Laurie Halse Anderson's terrific book, Speak.)

ACT 2: Move toward the middle of the novel. MC stuggles with things making him change. Author should make things worse and worse to the point of despair and giving up for MC. This is when/where the MC starts to change. (This is the longest part of the book and, I think, the most challenging. Must be filled with interesting challenges to keep from getting boring!)

TURNING POINT #2: Climax. Significant event that forces MC to come to terms with his transformation. Determines what happens with the MC.

ACT 3: Resolution. The aftermath of what has happened. Shows that MC has changed and is coming to terms with the changes. What is different?      

            The white cards below the green cards are where I work out individual scenes to move the story forward. This is where nothing's-too-crazy-at-this-point brainstorming happens. I jot down all kinds of ideas and thoughts of what can happen to the MC. Then cards get moved around, expanded, changed, whatever. Sequences develop. Note: a lot of these cards get pulled off and aren't used, but I save them to revisit if I get stuck later in the story.
            Now, what are the pink cards sprinkled among the white cards? In my current story, the pink cards show whenever the "love interest" pops up (she's a subplot, not the main focus of the story). The pink cards give me an idea of when I need to bring her back – I don't want too much time to pass between her scenes with the MC, but too many pink cards alert me that she's becoming too dominate – you know how domineering teenage girls can be . . . 
            Once I finish the first draft and get comments from my writers group, I revisit the board to update it and rethink what's happened. New white cards and scenes are slipped in and used for the next draft.

            While it may not be 'magic', that's how I start a story, knowing it will change and evolve as it's written – how many times has a minor character been so interesting that he/she grows into a more important role, like Jacob in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series? I'd love to hear how our blog readers get started!
            A big thanks to Rebecca Barnhouse for sharing her story pointers (and her always encouraging emails). She's a scholar and teacher of all things medieval – check out her new book, The Coming of the Dragon, a retelling of the end of Beowulf, and her last YA novel from ye old old old not-so-merry-England-if-you're-a-servant-girl, The Book of the Maidservant, on her website: http://rebeccabarnhouse.com

Friday, January 7, 2011

Writer's Resolution













Okay. New Year’s resolution.
Keep office clean.
Divide. Conquer.

Trash into trash bin.
Sort all of these papers.
Pile A.
Pile B.


Hey, b for bug. What are you doing here?
You have a story to tell me?
Wait, you’re talking too fast. What’s the name of the planet?
You know what?
You’re a stink bug. You’re not from outer space.
You stink.
I’m putting you outside.



Okay. Where was I?
Oh, Pile C. Ohhhh, look at this picture of the doggie.
What a cute picture.
This could win an award.
I should get on the computer and see if there are any contests.

Wait. FOCUS!
Where was I?
Pile D.
Rejections. Where is my flame thrower?
Why did I print these out? To punish myself?

This writing is a mean business.
No wonder I can’t keep my office clean.
So many things to think about.

Oh, cat. You have a story to tell me?
The dog did what? Why didn’t you scratch him?
Oh, that’s right. Someone declawed you. It wasn’t me.
Do you want my flame thrower?

Ha, just kidding. Now, get out of here.
Okay.

I’m sorted.
Sort of.

Get to work.
Uh-oh. Where did I put that outline?
It was on top of my coffee mug just a minute ago.

What pile did I put it in?
Where did I put the pile?

I want my mess back!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Studio(s) Tour: Workspaces for a Writer-Illustrator

I hope you like seeing the work areas of other creative people as much as I do, since our blog is going to feature eleven different ones this month (beginning with Judy's invitingly messy supply cupboards earlier this week). I know I learn about a writer's or illustrator's process from seeing where they create, and I often pick up ideas that help me with my own organization and habits. Having said that, you should probably be careful about what you pick up from me - it's as likely to be about how to create a gigantic mess as a masterpiece!

The photo above shows what has always been my favorite workspace: the kitchen table. (Shown with my book Mimi in progress.) I do have a dedicated studio upstairs, which I use too (okay, especially for storage), but I think I've always just felt more comfortable working near my family and all the stuff I need to manage our busy lives. And near the refrigerator, as my hips will attest.

But this year, one of my major resolutions is to really and truly start working in my studio (shown above, in a rare tidy-ish state, though if you have more orderly habits, it might not seem that way to you). For one thing, working at the kitchen table has meant constantly shifting things from the table to my studio whenever we've needed to do things like eat dinner. Or play mah-jongg. Or finish homework projects (because everyone else here seems to prefer working at the kitchen table too). For another, with two kids off at college and one studying marine conservation in the Seychelles off Africa (jealous, jealous, jealous), my nest will finally be empty this spring, so there's not really the need for me to hang out in Family Central anymore.

And finally, I'm grudgingly admitting a little more distance (and a flight of stairs) between me and the fridge might not be a bad idea.

I've spent a lot of the fall trying to get things arranged in my studio to make it both more inviting and better suited to my work. (Though I've resisted the urge to really renovate by stripping wallpaper, refinishing floors, adding skylights, painting - ah, a girl can dream.) What follows are a lot of photos with annotation. I hope there are ideas that might also work for other illustrators and/or writers.

My main work area for illustration is a large drawing table that I now have set up the way I usually arranged the kitchen table: with stations for different tasks.

This is the sewing station - for my mixed media, fabric-heavy art, it's a spot where I spend a lot of my time. It's not really set up exactly right in the photo. I usually have a small old-fashioned waxed paper bag taped to the edge to deposit cut threads and small scraps (the one orderly practice I actually acquired from my junior high sewing class). On the right, I also normally have a small coiled fabric basket that my collaborator and friend, Julie Stiegemeyer, made as a gift for me. It's perfect for holding my tiny sewn bits while they're in progress - the fabric (well, yarn, really) of the basket grabs the small items and keeps them from sliding off the table and getting lost. And see the reading glasses? I usually have a thousand of them scattered about.
Next to that is my cutting station. I mostly use an xacto knife for cutting paper and boards (and go through a LOT of blades). Normally I have an old tin I use to deposit used blades, as well as a box of new blades nearby. For fabric I use Fiskars sewing scissors or some of my vintage embroidery scissors. (I'm addicted to buying interesting scissors at estate sales.) The self-healing cutting mat I adore. Mine is made by Loew Corning and I got it at a local craft store, but there are lots of options available at reasonable prices online, like these at amazon.
To the right of the cutting area is my drawing/gluing/painting station. I usually put a sheet of waxed paper down to protect the surface when I'm gluing stuff up - I've learned the hard way that glue ruins self-healing mats. I tend to use inexpensive materials for sketching - ordinary Ticonderoga pencils and printer paper - largely because using good things seems to paralyze me or at least make me tight when I'm sketching. For transfering images for cutting or moving onto my final boards I mostly use Ebony pencils on inexpensive tracing paper that I buy in rolls. I used to use expensive vellum tracing paper, but unless an image needs to be transferred multiple times, I find the cheap stuff is fine. The lamp on the right (an Ott-light knock off) is wonderful and gets shifted around to wherever I'm working. It provides a very bright, clear light. There is usually a huge pile of books and other visual references on the floor next to this station.

At the opposite end from the sewing station is my polymer clay station. I keep them as separated as possible, since fabric fibers ruin the clay, and clay can ruin the fabric. Ideally, I'd do these tasks in different rooms. The pasta maker on the right is great for conditioning and mixing clay, as well as for rolling it flat when I need uniform sheets. The cup holds a ton of tools for shaping the clay - some intended for that purpose and others that are makeshift, like small knitting needles. The green clay in the photo is on waxed paper, but I normally work on the heavy piece of glass under it.

The remaining side of the table is multipurpose. I often use it when I'm working standing up (I don't have a chair along that side). Or if I need more room at a station, I push all the supplies in the middle over to this open area.
The rest of my studio is largely devoted to storage of one sort or another. Mixed media art demands an ungodly number of supplies.

 I made the white trays above from foamcore - there's a tray for each of the 32 pages in a picture book, as well as the covers. I use them to hold all the bits and pieces of each illustration while they're in progress. I tried several other systems, including boxes (took up too much space) and envelopes (stuff got squashed). I got this idea from a kindergarten class where each child had a "work-in-progress" tray. Now I just need some shelves to make access easier.
 Muffin tins and vintage dessert cups are great for sorting small things, and it's easy to remove and replace a whole group of things when I'm working.
 I use canning jars to store other small items (pretty as well as functional). I recently bought more to sort pre-mixed clays by color, but I store them in a cupboard to protect them from light.
 I love little drawers. The chest is from IKEA (years ago) and the tool sorters from Home Depot. The vase for storing chenille stems was a thrift store find. The pink crate below that sorts paints by color and glues by type was a garbage rescue.
An important part of my resolution this year is stop working a half hour before knock-off time (usually around five-thirty or six, so I can start dinner before I go on my exercise walk) - and CLEAN UP, so that the stations are once again visible and usable.

I tend to write either at the kitchen desktop computer or increasingly on my newish iPad, shown here on the desk my husband made for our bedroom. I got a wireless keyboard to make word processing easier, and I use the Documents-to-Go app in conjuction with Mobile Me to work on manuscripts.

 The binder on the left of the desk is for an adult novel I'm working on. My writing buddy Julie Stiegemeyer showed me how to set them up for every book I do. Now I don't know how I got by without that system.
 Here's the binder for my apple pie book - it has neat tabs for all the different things I stored in it, like notes for specific pages, the dummy, my tracing paper patterns ready to transfer to boards or fabrics.
 This is the binder for the book I'm working on now. No neat tabs - but still a huge help to corral all the bits and pieces in one place. And I've kind of color-coded the binder to make it easy to spot - it's for a book about a red monster.

Finally, this is the "studio" where I get much of my inspiration and work through issues that are giving me headaches.
I'd love to hear if these ideas work for anyone else - or if you have more good ideas for me!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Greetings...or How I Blew My 2010 Resolutions

It’s the New Year and resolutions abound. Most people resolve to make life changes in the coming year that will lead to success and personal satisfaction. My resolutions last year addressed weight loss (just ten pounds-I am a realist after all) and a desire to become better organized and a more proficient writer. That said, here’s why I failed to transform myself into a size eight J.K. Rowling in 2010:

Resolution #1 Lose weight
I blame my lack of willpower on: cookie table recipes (thanks a lot Rt. 19 Writers,) stress, as in no response from the agent who said she wanted to see the rest of my manuscript and hasn’t gotten back to me yet (you know who you are if you happen to be reading this blog,) over thirty inches of snow last February (stuck indoors thinking I should move to a warm weather state and raiding the ‘fridge for inspiration as to which state it should be) and last but not least my lack of will power which must have some genetic component that I’m not responsible for.

Resolution #2 Organize my stuff
It was never done. Here’s why: my husband (who’s uber-organized) suggested in my spare time (ha-ha) maybe I could organize a collection of old family slides by year, month, day and occasion. The slides are still sitting in cardboard bags on the top shelf of my closet. And as for my art supply closet, which houses all the goodies I use to create the crafts for my art activity books (mountains of toilet paper tubes, piles of brown paper lunch bags, construction paper, markers, glue sticks, scissors, fabric scraps, etc.) well, check out the pictures below to see how much progress I made over the last twelve months. 




Resolution #3 Write more
O.K. maybe I came close to succeeding on this one. After all, I did write my blog entry in the month of December (not sure if that counts.) And I pulled out a manuscript that had been rejected fourteen times seven years ago in the hopes of breathing new life into it (or maybe hoping the editors who passed on it passed on.)

Resolution #4 
I can’t even remember what this one was but I probably failed at it anyway.

Here’s the bright side: It’s a new year and although I’ve made the same resolutions as last year, I’m hopeful that 2011 will bring a slimmer me, a contract for a new book, organized family slides, good health and the continued support and camaraderie of my friends at Rt. 19 Writers. Happy New Year to you and yours!