Monday, July 20, 2020

Bringing the Focus in on Middle Grade Fiction

It's been a long time since I've written about writing on here. But this past weekend I participated in the online Realm Makers Conference (The Pandemic Edition) and I watched a session on editing that focused a lot on Middle Grade fiction. The speaker, an editor named Brian Kohl, said something I wish more people understood.

Young readers, with every page of a book they read, want to know three things: who the main character is, what they are doing, and what they are feeling. Anything else doesn't belong in the story. (That's, I think, pretty close to his words, if not exact.)

This has been a stumbling block for me while writing my MG ghost story. Critique group members will point out that certain things are not explained. They're looking for more exposition. More details that show why things are the way they are. For example, I once asked, in a Facebook group for writers, a bunch of questions regarding body decomposition for a specific scene. I got soooooo much information. I put sooooooo little of it in the actual scene. I simply didn't want to get the facts wrong, but the truth is, the character is going to see what she sees, and only what she sees, and the reader doesn't need to know one jot more.

I've been stressing so much about other research I need to do for this book. Worried readers are going to find historical inaccuracies, worried they'll find things inconsistent and implausible. Worried I need to do lots of explaining to make sure it all ties together neatly. But the fact is, I don't. Yes, I need to do the research because I don't want misinformation in my story. But I do not need the reader to understand anything the main character either doesn't understand or doesn't concern herself with.

Middle grade fiction is aimed at kids for whom the universe consists of what directly affects them, and no more. I'm not saying youngsters aren't smart--they are wicked smart. I'm not saying they're selfish--they are incredibly caring. I'm saying that developmentally they haven't reached a point where they're looking to find their place in the world. That's what being a teenager is about. That's the function of YA fiction--teens are finally looking outward, seeking footing in an ever-expanding universe, figuring out their positioning in relation to everything and everyone else. But middle graders want books that bring them in, books that connect with them where they are, stories that make them heroes in a universe of which they are the center.

I personally think that is part of the reason I love MG fiction even now. It allows me to let go of the rest of the world. Especially these days, with the world gone mad. Yes, it's kind of an escape, which makes my love of MG fiction a bit different from its function for actual middle graders, but we shouldn't put adult fiction expectations on MG fiction. It has nothing to do with dumbing things down -- it's all about a shift in perspective. It's not limiting the view, but seeing things through different eyes, reconnecting with the child inside us who doesn't have to filter everything through life experience.

Anyway the session did what I had hoped it would: it got me motivated to get working on my manuscript again because I've been reminded what I knew all along, which is to stay focused on the story itself and keep telling it the way I've been doing so.

Just a note: Yes, I know the images (of my original art) I added to this post seemingly have nothing to do with the topic. But, if you look closely, they actually illustrate what I'm talking about. A different perspective. Bringing the focus in. Seeing how someone's world may be big to them even though it looks small to you.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Art and an Anthology...and More Art

My dad helped a friend clean out a rental property and found a box of unpainted ceramics. He brought the box over to see if I'd like to have them to paint. Some of the figurines were of no interest to me, but I did snag several and set to painting.

This one I kept for myself. Dragon, of course, so no way I could sell it.

And this one I painted and gave to my dad as a gift. What you see here is the top. It's actually a container.

But these....oh, I hate clowns. Always have. So I couldn't resist turning what was obviously meant to be something cute into something a bit more sinister. 

Pennywise, old and new.

Poltergeist doll and the Joker. 
The Poltergeist doll has been sold, but the other three are still available on my Etsy store

And just a little catching up:

The Stories That Sing anthology I posted about last time has been out for a while. I got a cool write-up in a local paper (The Osprey Observer) about my contribution to the anthology cover art and my story inside.

You can check out the article HERE.

You can purchase Stories That Sing HERE. It's available in print and ebook.

And as I mentioned above, my Etsy shop, Jumping Rails is open. Original art is available, including a few of my altered thrift store paintings. And I recently added prints.

Free shipping on everything!

Click HERE to visit my Etsy shop.

I mentioned prints...You can buy prints of some of my art on Fine Art America. They also put the images on select items. Right now you can get some of my images on face masks.

Click HERE to visit my Fine Art America page.

And clicking HERE will take you directly to the masks.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Author-Artist Double Feature

A quick post today to share about the new anthology that releases in just a few days.

Season 2: Stories That Sing by Havok Publishing features not only my art on the cover but also a flash fiction story by me on the inside!

Visit the Havok site for all the details, and the link to the Facebook Launch Party on April 30th.'s the cover!!

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Art of Stealing

This is one of my most popular altered thrift paintings.
The original is an 8x10 on canvas board,
which I found at a thrift shop for a dollar.
In an attempt to do something new while walking on the treadmill, I've started watching more TED talks. I'm focusing first on talks about art and creativity. The other day, I watched one that presented the idea that all artists "steal" from other artists. It sort of latched onto the claim that there are no new ideas, only recycled old ones. I don't necessarily believe there are no new ideas, but I do think we can't help but be influenced by other artists' work, even to the point of incorporating certain aspects. And, as was the real focus of that talk, we are often inspired by others' ideas, and then make our own creative versions. 

As an example, I'll use one of my latest creative endeavors: altered thrift store paintings. The idea is to buy a rather generic painting from a thrift store and add fantastical elements to it. Such as, buying a boring landscape and adding monsters or mythical creatures or aliens. To get a better understanding, just Google images of "altered thrift store paintings" and you'll see dozens upon dozens of them. That's how I got starting--Googling images to see what has already been done. Not to imitate it, though--to transform.

One thing I do is add shadows and highlights
to the original to make sure my additions
blend in. This flower arrangement was rather
"flat" initially. I added depth to the flowers.
The difference between imitating and transforming is the way in which each artist proceeds. Every one has their own style and preferences. Some artists go for cute, some for funny, some for scary. Some put in movie characters (lots of Star Wars out there) or cartoon characters. Others prefer to create their own creatures. For some, the idea is to make the addition stand out both in content and in style. Others (like me) prefer to work the new elements in so that they appear to be part of the original painting.

The point is, I wouldn't be having all this fun, and selling these paintings as fast as I can create them, if I'd been afraid of taking hold of an idea that's already out there. Stealing is part of art, but it's taking those stolen ideas and turning them into something unique that makes it art. Letting your own personal style and voice come through. Not just imitating, but transforming. I still look at other altered thrift paintings to get ideas for how to approach a new painting, but I always end up taking things in a different direction. (Other times, I just stare at the painting until an idea jumps out--like the two examples I have in this blog post. Both originals seemed to tell me what they needed.)

So steal away! Ideas, that is. Inspiration. Then twist what you've stolen into something new and unique.

If you want to keep up with my art, including my altered thrift paintings, follow me on Instagram. I also try to keep up with sharing them on my Facebook author page

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Creativity is Giving

My last post was about the importance of creativity, how it affects our mental health. Today, I want to dive in a little about why that's true from a slightly different perspective. The pastor at the church my family has started attending recently just finished a series on happiness. How we find happiness, the fact that it's about relationships not material stuff, etc. The last installment was about giving. He pointed out that studies show volunteering our time, helping others, giving of ourselves increases our level of happiness in ways nothing else does. Well, except creativity. He mentioned that, but didn't expand on it in his sermon, and I had to get my thoughts out on the topic.

First of all, creativity is a form of giving. We don't think of it that way most of the time. And I don't mean just giving away the products of our creativity. We all know that a hand-made item well-received as a gift makes us feel happy. I spent years painting these little holiday-themed plaster figurines and Christmas ornaments and giving them away to family members and friends. I loved seeing people light up at the sight of my creations, and I loved seeing those creations proudly displayed in their homes every year. It made me happy. 

Now I sell most of my artwork--the artwork I don't keep for myself, of course. I generally expect payment for the work I do, and most of my friends and family won't allow me to give them my art because they want to support this endeavor. It's nice of them, and the money sure comes in handy, but the happiness comes from seeing how much people--friends, family, and total strangers--actually want to own my art. As I said in my Realm Makers Facebook group after attending the conference as an art vendor this summer, "I feel as though I put little pieces of my soul out, and you all wanted to take them home with you and nurture them." 

That is why creativity is giving. Artists put pieces of themselves into their art, and each little piece goes with whoever buys the art. Even if no one buys it, the artist's soul remains in the artwork, forever removed. We can't regain it by destroying the work. Once we've put ourselves into the artwork, that's it. Yes, it can make some of our work hard to let go. Sometimes, it's impossible--the artwork is simply too personal, and not having it nearby would be too much. The paintings I did right after my son's death are an example. Those were a gift to myself in a way. Meant for me only. But my other artwork still draws from deep within, and each time I sell one of those paintings I have to say goodbye to a little part of myself.

But that's where the paradox is. We give away a part of ourselves, and somehow that makes our souls fuller. Just like giving our time to volunteer, just like giving our money to a good cause, just like helping out someone in need. The only difference is that most of the time with art we don't know where that little piece of ourselves is going to go. We paint or sculpt or photograph, we carve or draw or crochet, we write or compose or choreograph--we do anything to make something that wasn't there before, weaving part of ourselves into the finished product, and we are giving. Even if what you create never leaves your house, a piece of you has been released into the world around you.

So, don't think of it as being selfish when you insist on time to work on creative projects. Don't think of it as "taking time for yourself." Think of it as time spent giving, sharing pieces of yourself and making room for new growth so you are able to give even more.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Why Creativity is Critical

I thought about grabbing an online image
specifically about creativity, but then
figured, why? I have my own art to show off. 
Seven months ago I posted about a painting series I did because I lost my 18-year-old son to suicide. I haven't blogged since, and I've only posted on Facebook a few times about the situation. I think that may be surprising to some people, that it's expected that I would express myself with words during this time because I'm a writer. Yes, everyone knows I'm an artist, too, but writers have this need to put things into words. And I have done that a lot in private journal entries and the workbook that goes along with the grief support group I'm in. But my real expression has come through art, specifically painting. When emotions are too intense or all jumbled, pictures just make more sense. When it comes to things I want others to read, I write much more fiction; and the little bit of nonfiction I've had published are personal experience stories written years after the experiences they illustrate. So maybe I'll someday be able to put all this into a story or stories somehow. For now, it's about art. And that's fine. The point is, I'm creating. For those of us who are creatives--visual artists, writers, dancers, musicians, wood workers, Lego builders, game designers, and the list goes on and on--expression through creativity is vital. It's as vital as the air we breathe and the water we drink.

I've been reading a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. So much of it is about the need we have to create and how it's a part of who we are, and how we become blocked in every aspect of our lives if we don't let that creativity flow. We become cranky and irritable if we stifle out urge to create. Cameron says it's like being choked if we don't allow ourselves to create. We become depressed, we become angry. We "react as if we are fighting for our lives." Because we are smothering a part of ourselves. It's scary and makes the world seem senseless and cruel.

I keep looking back at my son's life. Nick was so smart and inquisitive as a child. He absorbed information like a sponge, particularly when it came to animals. And he was creative. He drew so many pictures of those animals he spent hours learning about. He build zoos out of Legos. He'd go around the house gathering craft materials so he could create caterpillars and lizards. He wrote stories. He played pretend all the time. He was constantly coming up with outlandish "what if" scenarios for me to consider. As he got older, I encouraged his creativity. But he became more self-conscious and refused to draw or paint or design things. He wrote reluctantly when I assigned it as part of his homeschooling, but no matter how much I encouraged, he refused to write other than that. He refused to believe me when I told him how good his writing was. And it WAS good. Not I-think-it's-good-because-I'm-your-mom good either. It was I'm-a-writer-and-I-know-good-writing-when-I-see-it good.

The more I read in The Artist's Way, and the more I connect how I am feeling during my grief with how much or little I am creating, the more I am becoming convinced that part of Nick's depression came from him stifling his own creativity. No, I will not say that is the only cause, or even the central cause, because I have no way of knowing for sure. But I believe it contributed. Strongly. We are seeing higher suicide rates among teens for so many reasons, but the root of those reasons is lack of self-acceptance and feeling unaccepted by the world. We're seeing kids buckling under the pressure to be perfect academically when their strengths lie elsewhere, denying what their true talents are, thus denying who they are. Creativity is part of our identity. Denying that is denying who we are. And denying who we are makes us feel unworthy. It's scary and makes the world seem senseless and cruel. 

It's frustrating as I see how many people around me are feeling depressed and discouraged in the creative fields. So many can't make a living at it, and it sends the message that this is not a worthy pass time. We have to have "real jobs" in order to pay the bills--which is fine, but when we're feeling like failures because of that fact, it weighs on our souls. We shouldn't need outside validation, but in the world as it is today, we're constantly told that that's exactly what defines us. How much money you make, what kind of house you have or car you drive, what your title is, what your college degree level many paintings you've sold, how much you earn in royalties, how many Amazon reviews you have...To the point where many are giving up. Not just giving up writing for publication, but giving up writing altogether.

And kids are feeling pressure more and more to be successful financially. They're watching their parents stress about money. Watching their grandparents unable to retire fully. Being pushed to finish college before they've had a chance to finish high school. And college is presented as the only option. Trades are shoved aside, seen as less-than. The arts are being trampled by math and science. Don't get me wrong--I love math and science. I have a college degree in biology! But when school is skewed so heavily toward STEM classes, it sends a message. Oh, sure, some have changed that to STEAM, but the "A for art" gets glossed over. Or it's seen as only things like web design. And we're constantly reminded what a competitive market the creative arts can be. Better have a back-up plan. Paint if you must, write if you must, but don't expect to make a living. The subtext: You won't be getting paid, so don't waste your time. Or, at the least, you better produce what the market wants, establish yourself, and then can start working on things you actually enjoy and try to make money on those. (Btw, I'm not saying those things aren't true about the competitiveness, etc,, but the truth about those things doesn't make it easier on our self-esteem.)

A lot of us take that deeply to heart. We start spending so much of our time marketing our books or artwork, we find ourselves drained and unable to feel creative. We can't finish that novel because we know it's just going to be followed by hour upon hour of marketing with very little return on investment. It begins to feel pointless. At the same time, we turn our noses up at those who say they write for themselves, or write only for God, or "if only one person is touched by my story, I've done my job." We think to ourselves that those people aren't serious writers. That words written are meant to be read, and by as many people as possible. (I posed some questions in a writers group, trying to get to the heart of how everyone would feel if they had no way of expressing their creativity, and in doing so I asked if marketing was ever discouraging of the creative process. Wow. The way writers now jump on the discussion of marketing! It is a consuming topic in the writing world--I would say these days even more so than actual writing, which shows me how powerful the pressure is. Ironically, at the same time, a blog post called "The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies into Hustles" which touted the war cry, "You Don't Have to Monetize Your Joy!" was being shared virally among that same author group.)

We also feel that art is to be seen and appreciated, and sold. Selling art begets selling art--if you can say you're selling, people are more willing to buy because they see more value in your work. However, it's getting harder and harder for artists to emerge and gain traction. People are seeing art as something they should be able to get for free. Photography especially. It's "just a picture." Just pixels on a screen these days. Original art is harder to sell because mass produced "art" is everywhere--printed canvases are available in retail stores all over the place for a tiny fraction of what a similar original painting would cost. Those not in the art world themselves have no concept of the cost, both time and money, for the artist. I know from experience, it often makes us want to keep our original works and only sell prints. Or we're forced to sell original pieces that glean us below minimum wage for each hour of work put into them.

For years, I did art for just me. I mostly drew for fun. Painted holiday figurines to decorate my house or give as gifts. I scrapbooked. I even started wand-making because I wanted a one-of-a-kind wand for myself, with no intention of ever making another. But as with my writing, my art became about sales. How many original paintings could I sell? Prints? Pendants? Would people buy wands like the one I made for me? How do I get more efficient, so I can make more inventory and sell cheaper and still make money? I was overwhelmed by the stress of it all. Feeling horrible. It was great to hear people tell me how good my stories were, or how beautiful my art was, but dang it, buy them! Because lack of sales made it harder and harder for me to be motivated to keep producing. Sitting at art and craft events, having people walk up to my table and gush over how great my work is, then take a look at my prices and smile hesitantly and walk made me reluctant to participate in events anymore, sent me home frustrated and angry far too often.

And then Nick. Here one day, gone the next. Book sales suddenly don't matter. Art sales? Only so I can get rid of the stock filling up my armoire. I'm not writing stories anymore. Not now, at least. I will, soon. But art has been my go-to. Art is where I can breathe, why I can breathe. Creativity is keeping me alive. I don't care anymore whether or not it can make me a living. I would give anything to have my Nick back, but I wish I could do so with this understanding. I wish I could have him here, and have my art and writing not be a marketing obsession for him to see, but rather a way to live. I wish I could have made him understand that the need to create is not something to ignore. I wish I could have silenced the world for him.

Creativity needs to be encouraged for its own sake. Of course, we all have to make a living somehow, and wouldn't it be nice to just get paid for doing what you love? But not if the business side of that makes you hate doing what you love. Unfortunately, our world is so much about making money off everything (even playing video games on Youtube) that art is so rarely done for art's sake anymore. At least, it's not encouraged to be. We're pushed to be the next innovator, the next trend-setter, and those things don't happen as naturally as they used to. When the pressure isn't about learning how to paint or draw or write well, but rather about how to sell what you have painted/drawn/written, and success as an artist is measured in dollar signs, the soul of creativity is lost. In the process, a piece of our own soul. We end up stripping our souls instead of nourishing them. Passion wanes, or is smothered completely, and is replaced by ambition. And for some, like my son, passion is never even allowed to sprout in the first place.

I was discussing art with a couple of friends a while back, neither of whom are artists. Both have enjoyed doing those paint-and-sip classes once or twice. Both express interest in learning water color painting. Both talked about how little skill they have, and are mostly refusing to allow themselves the chance to nurture their desires. It made me so sad. I told them to just do it anyway. I explained that the only reason my art is at this level is that I've been working on it my whole life. Don't be discouraged because someone else makes it look easy and it's hard for you. It's not about making some thing beautiful on the outside, it's about making yourself beautiful and healthy on the inside. 

I don't know how to fix this. The world is a demanding place and that's not going to change. It will probably get even worse as time passes. It's harder and harder to fight. Kids are shunted off to college earlier and earlier, taught to the test in school, all shoved into the same box academically...even in the homeschool community kids are not immune because despite being schooled at home they live in the world and see what other kids their age are struggling with. And yes, some of us homeschoolers find ourselves pushing some of the same things. I'm not trying to end this post on a negative note, but the fact is words are not enough. Telling our kids we love them, encouraging them with words and actions is not always enough when the world is sending an opposing message much louder and stronger. We did everything to encourage Nick creatively, academically, personally. But it was all filtered through what he personally was seeing: the cruelty of the word at large. This doesn't mean we don't try! We do, every second of every day, and hopefully, with each little parental push, the pendulum will begin to move in the other direction. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

My Beloved Do You Know...

I haven't posted much on this blog the past couple of years simply because of busyness. The last two months I've posted almost nothing--and that's because my family suffered a serious tragedy on June 16th. My son, at the age of 18, took his own life. I will not go beyond that statement here--if you know me personally, you know what happened. (I am also not allowing comments on this post--if you know me personally, you have other ways of contacting me.) Otherwise, I'm sorry, it's still too raw for me to go further right now. But I've made promises on Facebook to post about a painting series I recently did, and it's much easier for me to put it all on here than to piece it together with all the photos and links there. This is the series:

At my son's memorial service, we played the video for the song ILLUSION by VNV Nation because it was a song that he connected with and it expressed his feelings about struggling to fit in. (You can watch the video with lyrics HERE.)

After the service, I began listening to more songs by VNV Nation, and one of the first ones I found was BELOVED. The words to this song...they were, and still are, so incredibly meaningful to me. So meaningful, they inspired a painting series. You can read the words (they are written below along with images of the paintings) and you will understand. I promise, though, you will not understand completely. Maybe that sounds arrogant, but no one can fully understand another person's deepest emotions, and while you'll hit the periphery, you will never quite get everything. I'm sure I can't fully understand the inspiration for the lyrics in the first place, not every nuance. This is my interpretation of the lyrics, my expression of how they affected me. 

Each painting is followed by the specific verse that inspired it. They are in order of how the verses appear in the song. After the seventh verse, some of them are repeated, but of course I didn't paint duplicates or different images for repeated verses. I've also included some of the explanation for specific elements, although I will not explain fully the meaning of everything.

Painting #1

It's colder than before
The seasons took all they had come for
Now winter dances here
It seems so fitting don't you think
To dress the ground in white and grey

(This one is pretty obvious.)

Painting #2

It's so quiet I can hear
My thoughts touching every second
That I spent waiting for you
Circumstances afford me
No second chance to tell you
How much I've missed you

(I chose a butterfly because to me they are the most "silent" of all creatures, and they go around touching every flower.)

Painting #3

My beloved do you know
When the warm wind comes again
Another year will start to pass
And please don't ask me why I'm here
Something deeper brought me
Than a need to remember

(This all happened at the beginning of summer when warm winds blow, and when that happens again, a year will have passed.)

Painting #4

We were once young and blessed with wings
No heights could keep us from their reach
No sacred place we did not soar
Still, greater things burned within us
I don't regret the choices that I've made
I know you feel the same

(Again, pretty obvious that mountains are great heights.)

Painting #5

My beloved do you know
How many times I stared at clouds
Thinking that I saw you there
These are feelings that do not pass so easily
I can't forget what we claimed as ours

(Also fairly obvious--the butterfly seeing a butterfly in the clouds. However, in real life I keep seeing dragons.)

Painting #6

Moments lost though time remains
I am so proud of what we were
No pain remains, no feeling
Eternity awaits

(The moments have passed, and butterflies live but a moment, but time continues--the sun will still go up and down. I considered having the wings falling off the butterfly in this one, but I think this captures it well without that imagery.)

Painting #7

Grant me wings that I might fly
My restless soul is longing
No pain remains, no feeling
Eternity awaits

(The butterfly transforms into something much more substantial. Butterflies represent change and rebirth, but as I said above, they are short-lived. Phoenixes represent rebirth that continues. They are much more powerful, can fly farther, go on forever.)

You can listen to the song ILLUSION that inspired the series HERE

Again, there is much more to this, and no, I'm not going to let you into the deepest parts because that is for me alone. But I wanted to share the lyrics that inspired this because music and writing are powerful things, and because while everyone is basically right by saying this painting series is about grieving and healing, it's specifically about THIS song. Thank you, VNV Nation, for touching both my son's life and mine in such a profound way.