A Picture May Spark a Thousand Words

by Artemis Greenleaf

Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees. – Marcel Proust

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What happens when your imaginary friends stop talking to you?

If you’re a writer, it is the dreaded “writer’s block,” that feeling of looking at a blank sheet – paper or screen – and finding that the only thing that comes to mind is the item you forgot when you were at the grocery store yesterday, or perhaps that song that you haven’t heard in years, and never liked anyway, that’s been stuck in your head for the past three days.

Of course, you can get up and take a walk, do yoga, or make another cup of coffee. Those things might help. Sometimes taking a hot shower is all that is needed to wash away the blockages and get the creative juices flowing.

But here’s another suggestion. If you really want to get into your characters and get them talking to you again, draw them. Draw things in their world. Paint the villains they face. What does your main character’s bedroom look like? What color is her kitchen? What kind of music does your main character listen to when he’s working out? Does he go to the gym or do it at home? What does that look like? It’s okay if the drawings aren’t perfect. It’s fine if the paintings are so cringe-worthy that you’d never show them to anyone. But the more you do, the better you will get at it. If you spend some time making a trailer for your book, it means you will spend a lot of time looking at (or creating) images/videos that you find evocative of the feelings and situations your characters are in. You will also be looking for music that sets the tone of at least the current scene, if not the entire work. Listen to it. Listen to it while you’re drawing/painting/sculpting.

Sometimes I draw with pencils, but mostly, I use a 3D modelling and rendering package called Blender and PhotoShop (I have a Creative Cloud subscription). Blender does have quite a steep learning curve (but there are tons of video tutorials out there to get you going). If PhotoShop CC or even Elements isn’t in your budget, Gimp or Paint.Net might work for you. Besides getting you back on track with your characters, there are added benefits to learning a new skill: 1) you have a new skill! Congratulations; and 2) it keeps your brain sharp, and may help ward off dementia as you get older.

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Covering Your Trail

By Mandy Broughton

Cover art is a reader’s first experience with a book. Will it entice her to pick it up and give it a glance? Or will it cause her to chunk it across the room? [Full disclosure: I have ripped the cover off of two different books and shredded them because they were so bad. But the books were good.]

I love to design covers. Selecting art, placing and manipulating it, and finally the reveal. I love the satisfaction of a job well done. What could be better? [A bestseller? The love and envy of other writers? The adulation of adoring admirers? An excellent alliteration? But I digress—]

Writing is fun—ultimately a job—but still fun. But designing cover art—that’s where I get to let myself go wild. I can’t draw but I do think I have an eye for balance. And that discerning eye made me want to write a post on designing covers.

Here are a few ideas on what to look for in a cover. Tell me if you agree, disagree, or if I’ve left something out.

Organized vs Disorganized

Is the cover planned, organized chaos, or just Chaos with a capital C? A jumbled cover is fine—it can work—but there must be a method to the splattering we are looking at. Randomness is only our friend when selecting subjects for experiments, not in our covers. Think of a bomb: a placed charge can move rock so the road can be built. But throwing TNT willy-nilly on the hillside will rarely result in a benefit to the driving community.

Complexity vs Crowded

I like minimalist covers. That’s a personal preference. Simple lines, smoothness, those are soothing and invite me in. An overcrowded cover gives me a headache. It reminds me of my house and how I need to clean. I want to enjoy a book, not be reminded of housework.

Flow vs Splat

Where do my eyes want to go? To the authors name? The title? Am I looking at the woman swimming for her life and ultimately to the shark underneath her? The shark just wants a small snack before breakfast. He’s so misunderstood. [Jaws a great cover even forty years later.]

Symmetry vs Hot Mess

Balance. Even if it is a full and busy cover, there must be balance. Think of Star Wars: “In the time of greatest despair [often when I design], a child shall be born [hmm—a cover?] who will destroy the Sith [all bad covers] and bring balance to the Force [an excellent cover].

Appeal vs Avant-Garde

Avant-Garde is trendy. It can work on a cover but always remember the readers. When appealing to a large group, try to get what most people prefer. Think of ice cream flavors: more people like vanilla over Marbled Cream Cheese Brownie, Southern Peach Cobbler, or Birthday Cake. Vanilla ice cream may not be the first choice but, for many people, it is in the top three. There’s a reason the latter flavors are flavors of the month while vanilla is always available.

So tell me dear readers… what do you look for in a cover? What are some of your favorites?

Strong Women and We’re Not Talking Body Odor

This is Mandy Broughton. [taps mic] Is this thing working? [feedback noise] Mandy Broughton here with another victim, er, guest for my hot seat.

Several weeks ago, Patricia Flaherty Pagan had asked me to read an advanced review copy of her upcoming anthology, Eve’s Requiem: Tales of Women, Mystery, and Horror. Once I finished it, I knew I needed to add Ms. Pagan to my collection of torturees interviewees.

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These thirteen short stories are about real women in extraordinary situations. Okay, it has horror so it’s not all fun and bonbons. But they are all powerful women who take an active role in their fate. And they pack quite a punch without any of the benefits of spandex costumes.

MB: The upcoming anthology, Eve’s Requiem, co-edited by you and Fern Brady, will be released in October. The collection features strong female characters, good and bad, in dangerous situations. But I noticed Ms. Brady’s name is listed first. To keep with the theme of strong females, is it true you two arm wrestled to see whose name would be on top?

PFP: Alas there was no arm wrestling or WWF (wild writing females) style smackdowns. It is the publishing industry’s custom to list the editors alphabetically, so that it how we did it. We were blessed to worth with excellent writers and fun stories, but compiling an anthology is a lot of work, so it was helpful to share the process.

MB: Doing a collection of short stories with female leads can be risky. And none of the characters, to my recollection, were six feet tall, weighed 100 pounds and could bench press 315 twenty times without breaking a sweat. Are you afraid that you might have alienated the spandex-karate-Jiu-Jitsu-superhero-big-breasted reading demographic?

PFP: The Jiu-Jitsu loving crowd shouldn’t underestimate the characters in Eve’s Requiem. The shotgun- wielding, elderly aunt in Wendy Leeds’ story “Bloodline” could take out an action movie heroine any day!
But seriously, stories celebrating characters who look more like the average reader are slowly but surely being published in America. Not that we don’t have further to go. My own mission-oriented small press has set the goal of publishing more fiction about women from diverse backgrounds. America isn’t full of tall, skinny, white chicks, so American bookshelves shouldn’t be either.

MB: I see you have several events celebrating the release of Eve’s Requiem: Tales of Women, Mystery, and Horror. My book events tend to include coercion, duct-tape, and lots of dragging of bound bodies. I’ve come to realize this might not be the most productive way to approach book signings. What do you see as the recipe for success at book events?

PFP: So far the secret ingredients seem to be:
1. Cupcakes
2. Organized friends
3. Accessibility
4. More cupcakes
At the reading and launch to celebrate the publishing of Up, Do Spider Road Press’ collection of flash fiction by women, we served gourmet cupcakes from a well-known Heights cupcake bakery. It’s amazing how much more interesting writers sound while you’re devouring just the right amount of chocolate ganache! We will therefore continue the tradition and serve gourmet cupcakes at our Eve’s Requiem launch party at Writespace Houston on Friday, October 10 at 8 pm. Stop in to hear good stories and or to eat cupcakes. Either way, it works for me.

Thankfully, I have also lucked into meeting some organized and motivated author friends since moving to Houston. Tireless author-preneur Pamela Fagan Hutchins and enthusiastic novelist Gay Yellen have graciously invited me to join in on some of the Women of Mystery readings this fall. I will not be involved in the catering, but I am honored to be invited to read with such a talented group. These group readings will feature several power-house authors, including best-selling novelist Stephanie Jaye Evans and this wacky author named Mandy Broughton. Houstonians can stop into the Barnes and Noble in River Oaks on Saturday, October 18 at 2 p.m. to investigate.

Accessibility is everyone’s problem, so I am also trying to set up events that all readers can enjoy. I am happy that we are able to hold out upcoming launch at Writespace, a great writers’ organization that also happens to be located in a handicapped accessible building. In addition, I was able to book an ASL interpreter for the event. I hope that Spider Road Press will have the resources to hire ASL interpreters for future events as well. Because all readers like fiction and cupcakes.

MB: Finally, I enjoyed your story, “Bitter Sweets,” also found in this collection. Of all the tales, I think it had the most realistic feel, as if it could have occurred. Readers demand to know, did you sneak into Doc Brown’s laboratory and borrow his DeLorean to go to 1919 Boston to do research?

PFP: I would love to see the look on people’s faces if I did roll into 1919 Boston in a DeLorean. The streetcar drivers and ice delivery men would be seriously spooked!

While I couldn’t count on Doc Brown, my AP history teacher and community college lecturer dad pointed me towards the historical facts. In fact, his joy in telling the story of the real life, surreal molasses flood in Boston’s North End in January, 1919 planted the seed for the story. For more details, I borrowed his copy of historian Stephen Puleo’s great book about the disaster, Dark Tide. Nonfiction sometimes bores me, but Puelo writes well about a truth that was just as strange as fiction. I highly recommend his book.

If readers are interested in checking out my story and the twelve other suspenseful tales of peril and survival in Eve’s Requiem, they can save money by preordering it for a discounted rate between now and 10/5/14. See Spider Road Press’ online store for more information.

Spider Road Press

MB: Thanks so much for the interview and good luck with the launch. I look forward to cupcakes buying a sighed copy.

PFP: Thanks for the chat!

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Read it! You’ll never look at flower gardens, haunted houses, dark roads, walking home from work, and 1919 Boston the same way again.

 

And, dear readers, in the great capitalistic tradition, I have a word from my sponsor.

[begin commercial] My book, The Cat’s Last Meow, is being featured on Monday September 29th 2014 at eBookSoda, a new readers’ site where they’ll send you ebook recommendations tailored to your taste. www.ebooksoda.com. I’ve found some good deals there. It’s kind of fun browsing. [end commercial]

 

Unconfidential Sources

My turn to blog! I considered writing about indie publishing. But Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey, and Passive Guy have that more than covered. Maybe a piece on getting some writing done, with kids, during summer break. But there are already at least 108 million mommy blogs (go google ‘mommy blog’ if you don’t believe me). That, and I haven’t solved that puzzle, either. I asked myself, “What is something that nobody but me can write about?”

Ideas. More specifically, how I get ideas for stories.

I read the “Weird News” sections of online news sources. I’ve even gotten ideas from reading the Homeowner’s Association newsletter.

I write down my dreams. Sometimes, I get weird scenes, scenarios, or dialog. But sometimes, I get entire stories.

I listen to podcasts, like Mysterious Universe.

I read websites, like CryptoMundo, Who Forted, Coast to Coast AM (a little heavy on the conspiracy theories, but sometimes they have gems).

I watch shows like Unusual Suspects, Homicide Hunter, and Forensic Files.

I eavesdrop on strangers in public places. Shhhh. It’s a secret.

I take pictures of odd things.

I go unusual places, and love doing “off the beaten track” activities. I would recommend the sewer tour in Paris, if you get the chance.

Put all those things in the blender, then ask “What if…”