In a painting workshop with Carol Marine I learned this trick: At the very end of a painting, add the bling. The bling is that tiny, bright detail that makes a painting come to life. It’s the highlight on the rim of a coffee cup, the dark shadow under the tires of a car, the traffic light way down at the end of the block, glowing green. You can’t paint these details earlier in the process, because you’ll obliterate them with the broad brush strokes that have to come first.
Here’s a video of Carol painting apples. Watch her drop in the bling layer at the end. See how the painting pops right at the end?
After the workshop, I started to do this with my writing, too. At the very end of the process, right before I send the manuscript to my editor, I print out the entire novel and scramble the pages so they’re out of order. (Or, if I don’t want to print it out, I make a list of page numbers, pick pages at random, edit on the computer, and cross out page numbers as I go.) It’s important to read the manuscript out of order, so that I don’t get distracted by larger story questions. This revision is all about language.
This legal pad is on my desk right now, as I do my bling layer revision for the fifth Kopp Sisters novel. I pick a page at random, read it aloud (this part’s important–you must read your books aloud, because you’ll find every awkward, inauthentic bit of writing), and I look for the most drab, clunky, clichéd, boring bit of language on that page–and I turn it into the best piece of writing on that page.
Maybe it’s just a matter of swapping out a single flat, unimaginative word for something unexpected and beautiful (or horrifying).
Maybe a predictable line of dialogue can become something much more specific and true to the character.
Maybe an easy, obvious description can be changed so it tells us something we don’t already know.
The bling layer is all about adding delight, honesty, specificity, and surprise. You’re dropping in treasures for your readers to find. It’s not just line editing, although I do that, too. This pass is very much about adding something wonderful.
If you’re doing a bling layer revision, ration those pages so you don’t run out of juice. You might find that you can only come up with ten brilliant ideas per day. Fine. Do ten pages a day. Put on some music first, dance around the room, take a walk, read a page of Dickens—whatever it takes to get yourself in the right mindset to sprinkle a little magic into your manuscript.
When I’m out drawing, I try to remember to resist the temptation to spend an hour looking for the perfect view. Anything can make an interesting drawing. If you’re in Paris, you don’t have to draw the Eiffel Tower.
I was trapped under an awning during a rainstorm recently and drew a picture of the car parked across the street. It’s a funny, awkward little picture, but it ended up being my favorite drawing of the day.
I want my drawings to be a record of my experience in the world while I was drawing, complete with raindrops, smudges, and spills.
My art setup is lightweight and portable, so that I can draw absolutely anywhere—standing up, sitting on the curb, on a street corner, without a table or an easel or a stool. But if I’m tired, or my back hurts, or it’s cold or rainy, I’ll go where I need to go to be comfortable, and draw what I can see from there.
If something looks blurry from where I’m sitting, I leave it vague. If a telephone pole is blocking my view, I draw the telephone pole.
That’s what the drawing is for, after all—to record a moment in my life, complete with its aches and pains, adverse weather, less-than-perfect eyesight, obstructions, and particular vantage point.
Speaking of vantage points–I was in New Mexico once, looking for the landscapes Georgia O’Keeffe painted. I was particularly excited to see what she called The White Place, these chalky cliffs she painted over and over. I had a postcard of her most famous White Place painting with me, and I walked around the area, trying to line up the contours in the painting with my own view
I backed up to a spot that seemed just right—and stumbled into a tree. Of course! She’d picked a spot in the shade. It probably had less to do with finding the perfect composition and more to do with getting out of the harsh desert sun.
I sat down in the shade and started to draw, but when I was about halfway finished, I realized that I was in the wrong spot. The right-hand side of the drawing looked accurate, but the rest of the view didn’t match O’Keeffe’s painting at all. What was I missing?
So I got up and started walking around again. Pretty soon, I was able to line up the left side of the cliffs with the left side of her painting. I walked around until I had that half of the painting in perspective and…
I backed into another tree.
When the sun shifted, O’Keeffe simply stood up, walked around, found another tree that offered some shade, moved her art supplies over there, and adjusted the painting to fit her new reality.
If you don’t believe me, believe Georgia O’Keeffe: Your lived experience is exactly enough. It is exactly the source from which you should draw (or paint, or sing, or dance, or write, or sew, or speak, or make) right now.
Most artists begin with some version of a thumbnail sketch. It might look like this one: a tiny, rough drawing, made with the purpose of working out where the big shapes go. Generally there’s some attempt at indicating value (light and dark) as well. You might do four of these before you settle on a composition that works.
When I do an oil painting, I’m generally working from a photograph, so I’ve already messed around with the composition on my computer and cropped it to suit. But I still do something like a thumbnail: I make a rough drawing on the canvas, using just one color of paint, to work out the values and the big shapes.
Same with sketching. I don’t generally make a thumbnail before I start to sketch–after all, the sketches themselves are already small and informal–but I do draw in the major shapes first, very lightly, in pencil. I almost always erase and adjust. Then, when I start to draw in pen, I change the drawing again, because now I’ve been looking more closely, and I can make better observations than I could even a few minutes earlier.
These are very ordinary, everyday techniques for artists. I’ve realized, over time, that the thumbnail sketch doesn’t just help solve problems. It isn’t solely a means of deciding how high or low the horizon should be, or whether the focal point should be to the right or left of center.
It’s also a way of ruminating over a subject before committing to it. It’s a way of making a first pass through your idea, and getting better acquainted with it. It’s a way of connecting your subject to your eye, and your eye to your hand. If you make any kind of art, you know that connection has to be rebuilt every time you pick up your instrument.
So how do writers make a thumbnail sketch?
Lots of writers make outlines. There are as many different types of outlines as there are writers constructing them. Index cards, diagrams, mind maps, character sketches, Scrivener corkboards–people love that stuff. Also, some people hate that stuff. I know plenty of writers who can’t stand the idea of an outline. They have to wade right in.
There are also writers who keep journals (and even bullet journals). They keep track of character development, themes that are emerging, problems to be worked out. They might write as much in their journal as they do in their actual manuscript.
I do something in between. I think of it as a thumbnail sketch for writers.
I started keeping a writing journal a couple years ago, right after the 2016 election, when, like many artists, I was too distraught to work. I just picked up a blank notebook and started writing about how miserable I was and how nothing mattered anymore and how I couldn’t imagine starting another novel.
Then I wrote about how I couldn’t figure out what to write about.
Then I wrote about how I did know what to write about, if I was being honest, but I didn’t know HOW to write about it.
Then I wrote a few paragraphs about that thing I couldn’t figure out how to write, and next thing you know, I’d made a little thumbnail sketch–in words–about the first page of my novel.
Then I wrote the first page of my novel.
That’s more or less how I proceed all the time now. I sit down and write ABOUT what happens next in the book. I write about all the things I haven’t figured out. “This is the scene where she catches the thief,” I write, “but I still don’t know how she catches him. The trouble is that he broke in at midnight, and she doesn’t arrive until the next morning…” and on I go, until I’ve worked out some plausible way for the next scene to proceed.
The problem isn’t always “what happens next?” Sometimes the problem is the tone. “This is supposed to be a funny scene, but I don’t feel funny today. Nothing’s funny.” Then I find myself writing about what MIGHT be funny, if only I could bring myself to consider it, and pretty soon I’m writing my funny scene.
Like a thumbnail sketch, this type of writing lets me work out the big ideas and put them into place. I can’t just think about a thing inside my head and then execute it flawlessly. I need to noodle around with it first, using the same tools I’ll use to make the finished thing, whether that’s a pen, a paintbrush, or a piano keyboard.
That’s how I connect my subject to my brain, and my brain to my hand. Once I do that, I’m off and running.
Are You Haunted by a Restless Sense that There’s Something Better Out There? Congratulations, You’re an Artist
I can’t stop thinking about what I read in the last three pages of Peter Steinhart’s memoir The Undressed Art. If these lines speak to you…congratulations. You’re an artist.
This was the first passage that stopped me in my tracks:
“What does one feel that leads one to light out? A restlessness? A sense that one does not fit in? A desire for revision? A sense that somewhere else life could be better? All these seem to me to be the field marks of creative personalities.”
Wait. Not fitting in? A sense that life is better somewhere else? It’s tempting to label those feelings as unhappiness. It’s tempting to try to stop feeling that way, because you might be happier if you didn’t.
But…what if that restlessness is neither good nor bad, but simply the outlook of an artist?
He goes on to define artists as “dispersers”—people who are drawn to the open road, to new experiences and fresh faces. “Nondispersers” are the people who want you to stay put. Read on:
“There are places in which it is hard to live with a disperser’s outlook. There are always nondispersers arrayed against whatever spaces an artist creates. There are always people who cling to tradition and view this wanderlust, this desire, this questioning and restlessness, as a threat to the smooth operation of society.”
Here’s where he really gets going. Does this speak to you?
“Artists tend to end up in cities, especially in cities of unusual liberality. Art centers like New York, Paris, and San Francisco are cities that have been settled and built largely by dispersers, by people who didn’t fit into the more rigid social structures of small towns and autocratic rules, by people who left their birthplaces voluntarily because they felt, like Richard Jarrett, that there was something better ‘out there.’ People who could sympathize with and tolerate idiosyncrasy, confusion, muddled thinking, and visionary chaos, because they believed that in doing so we can learn to live with our own irrationality and unpredictability, our own shame, our own desire. That out of this muddle, out of the errant lines and blurred form and imperfectly read values, come possibility and hope. And sometimes, too, a clear and reassuring light. A picture that goes from form to feeling. A picture that envisions humankind in a fresh and promising way. A new space.”
He doesn’t ignore nature as the wellspring of creativity, either. I’ll leave it to you to find the entire passage, but it begins:
“A naturalist goes into nature also looking for hope, for insight, for something that reassures and clarifies. We see nature not as something to be dominated or transformed, but as the original whole.”
It is true, of course, that New York, Paris, and San Francisco were built by dispersers but have now been purchased by a global wealthy elite, rendering these cities unlivable for artists. We have been robbed of our creative heritage, of the places we built. I can’t fix that in a single blog post. (Yes I can: High taxes on vacant properties, second homes, and luxury rentals, plus laws requiring full transparency on all real estate transactions so that investors and money launderers can’t hide behind an LLC, plus a basic social safety net that includes universal health care, elder care, child care, robust public transit, and free college.)
That aside, I’d argue that the “visionary chaos” of old New York, Paris, and San Francisco will spring up anywhere the dispersers disperse to, whether that’s Detroit, Mexico City, or Marfa, Texas.
If this is you—if you’re tired of feeling that there’s always something better out there, and if you wonder what’s wrong with you for always longing for the next thing—I would say this:
That longing isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Congratulations, you’re a disperser. You’re an artist.
I was sitting in a park recently, drawing the trees, when a woman asked if she could sit down next to me and watch me draw.
“Sure,” I said. “Are you an artist?”
“I wanted to be,” she said. “I started to draw, but then I showed my drawings to my boyfriend and he said they were no good, so I quit.”
“Stop showing your work to your boyfriend,” I said.
She laughed. “Yeah, I guess I could do that.”
Just last week I was on book tour with Elly Griffiths, whose protagonist is an archeologist. Elly’s husband is also an archaeologist. Someone in the audience asked what he thought of her novels.
“Oh, I don’t think he reads them,” she said, lightly and cheerfully.
The audience seemed shocked, but she wasn’t bothered at all by this. “They’re just not his sort of books,” she said.
Makes sense to me.
I believe that anyone who loves you should be able to look at the art you’re making and say, “I love you and I love it that you’re doing this. Please keep going.” That’s reasonable to expect.
An occasional “Wow, that’s wonderful” would be nice, just like an occasional “Hey, gorgeous” is nice. It’s not a full-page review in the New York Times. It’s a compliment, given out of kindness in those moments when you’ve made an extra effort and it shows.
They could also show their love by making it possible for you to work: by watching the kids, or clearing out a space in the garage, or simply by leaving you alone when you’re working.
They could help you load your equipment into the car. They could change that hard-to-reach light bulb in your studio.
They could point out an upcoming exhibit at the art museum, or a new book, or a concert, that speaks to your work.
They could inform themselves about your art just enough to be able to explain what you do to a stranger. “My husband’s a plein air painter,” would suffice, or “My wife’s a jazz percussionist.”
If your loved ones put you down for making art, or get in the way of you making art—well, then we have a problem.
But they don’t need to love your work—especially your rough, unfinished, just-for-practice work. They don’t need to read your books, or go to all your concerts. If you were a lawyer, they wouldn’t attend your every trial and deposition, would they?
My dad’s a musician, and my mother didn’t sit all night at his gigs, gazing adoringly at him while he played guitar. She made sure he had a clean shirt and something to eat before the show. Then he went off to do his work.
Your loved ones should look after YOU. You should look after your art.
In Chapter 23 of Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, divorce attorney John Ward makes a joke about a drink make with ginger ale, and then later suggests a cocktail called The Willful Deserter, which describes some of his clients. I put those two ideas together to offer up this delightful variation on a Moscow Mule.
The Willful Deserter
Juice of ½ lime
2 oz pineapple juice
2 oz vodka
4 oz ginger beer (such as Reed’s Ginger Beer)
Sprig of mint for garnish
Pineapple slice or lime slice for garnish
Combine the first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake well with ice. Pour into a glass filled with crushed ice, top with ginger beer, and garnish.
And…there’s a cocktail for every book in the Kopp Sisters series! You can find them all here.
“I have an idea for a book, but I don’t know where to start.”
People ask writers for advice on starting a book all the time. I’m sure a lot of writers get tired of trying to answer that question. There you are, behind a table at a booksigning, at the end of a long evening, trying to summarize the incredibly messy and frustrating process of making 300 pages come together as a coherent whole while a dozen other people wait in line to get their book signed. Where to begin?
But I have an answer to this question! Last week, when a woman at my event in Wisconsin told me that she wanted to write a memoir but didn’t know where to start, I told her exactly where to start.
With a box of index cards.
Pick a month in which you don’t have tremendous demands on your time and attention. Every day during that month, write down any idea you have about this book you’d like to write and toss it in a box. These can be grand ideas (“The story of my grandparents’ immigration from Poland”) or small ideas (“That time I put salt in the cake batter instead of sugar.”) Some of them might not be suitable for the book you’re going to write. Some of them might be too big, too broad, overly vague. Some might be too small and specific and uninteresting.
Doesn’t matter! They’re only index cards. Write them down anyway, and toss them in the box.
If you have a very busy day in which you have no time to write anything down on an index card, force yourself to take one minute and write one thing down on one index card. C’mon, you had time to brush your teeth, right? You have time for this.
If you hit a mother lode and come up with 40 ideas all at once, great! Write them down on 40 index cards and put them in the box.
If an idea hits you and you don’t have an index card handy, write it down on any scrap of paper. Type it into the notes app on your phone. Email it to yourself. Leave yourself a voice mail. And at the end of the day, transfer those ideas to index cards. There is something powerful and cumulative about writing your ideas down, in the same format, every day.
At the end of the month, I hope you have HUNDREDS of cards. You should keep adding cards all the time. Don’t stop just because the month is over.
Now what? Well, remember, this is the short version, the standing-in-line-at-the-booksigning version. But the next thing you should do is to pull out an index card and write ONE PAGE about what’s on that card. Tell the story, whatever it is, no matter how big or small it is.
Just one page. A double-spaced page, at that! We’re talking 300 words. Anybody can get 300 words down on paper.
Writing this page might give you more ideas for more index cards. Good.
You might not get the whole story written in one page. Fine. Write two pages. Or (even better) leave yourself a few notes and come back tomorrow to write another page.
Don’t worry about where that page falls in the chronological timeline of your story. In fact, I hope you write everything out of order. It’ll be fresh and interesting that way.
If you can write one page a day–a double-spaced page!–then at the end of the year, you’ll have a book. That even allows for some days off for holidays, illness, whatever.
Now, I promise you that it’ll be a terrible book, a real mess, and it’ll be completely out of order, and there will be a million things about it that are wrong and out of whack and in need of some serious fixing–but now you have some pages to work with.
That’s how you start.
I’m about to leave on book tour (please come see me!). Every year I post a picture of my compact suitcase, and every year some of you ask me to explain what’s in that suitcase–in other words, how I manage to live out of a tiny suitcase for three weeks, when I have to get up in front of an audience and look halfway presentable every night.
I never do answer those questions, because I feel weird talking about clothes. I deeply, seriously, do not care about clothes. Clothes shouldn’t matter, right? It’s what’s inside that counts.
But…you know…we do all wear clothes. It’s a practical matter we all deal with.
So. You asked. I’ll tell you how I do it. Your mileage may vary.
No matter how long the trip, I only pack for three days.
That means I take a travel day outfit, one book tour outfit, and a second book tour outfit. This rule doesn’t just apply to business trips–I do it on long vacations to Europe, too. Think of it this way: There’s the outfit you’re wearing, the one you’re going to wear tomorrow (which is clean) and the one you wore yesterday, part of which might be hanging up to dry in the hotel bathroom after you washed it out in the sink. (That’s what hotel shower gel is for.)
Plus a few extras.
Any suitcase can hold more than two outfits, so you can throw in some extras depending on the season. The extras include: Pajamas (bonus points if those can double as workout/coffee shop attire, such as yoga pants and a t-shirt), an extra sweater or jacket if it’s winter, and/or a couple of extremely lightweight, quick-dry tops if it’s summer.
Everything goes together.
For me that means black, white, plus a color like navy or dark red. Examples:
Travel day: These Athleta pants (which are as comfortable as leggings or pajamas but with pockets and a bit more substanial–I’m not a fan of wearing workout clothes on the airplane). They would, in a pinch, look just fine onstage or at a reception. These ExOfficio tunics or a Uniqlo rayon blouse are dressier than a t-shirt but super comfortable and wash out quickly in the sink. This Athleta cardigan is warm enough to get me in & out of an airport on a winter day, and presentable enough to wear anywhere. If you’re going to travel with a bulky sweater or jacket, that needs to be your travel day outfit because it might not fit in your suitcase and besides, airplanes are cold.
Book Tour #1: I love this dress from Brassor this one, both of which look great over their ponte pants and can be layered up with a sweater, jacket, blouse underneath (or even just a thermal layer underneath, which I do if I’m going to be in a chilly convention center, for instance). Impervious to wrinkles, quick dry. Bonus: The ponte pants with any shirt can be an extra back-up outfit for days off.
Book Tour #2: I have these pants from Brass but really any somewhat dressy no-wrinkle black pants are good. I wear them with this blouse and maybe a sweater or jacket. I also love Uniqlo’s rayon blouses in both short and long sleeves and pack a couple of these as “extras” because they weigh nothing and dry so quickly.
My style might not be your style, but take a look at Brass for dressy/business travel, Ex Officio or Eddie Bauer Travex or Athleta for vacationwear, and believe it or not, even shops like Chico’s have a travel line. Not my style, but there are a couple basics there I would wear in a pinch.
Extras: Regardless of the weather, my extras almost always include one of Uniqlo’s linen shirts because they’re great when it’s hot, fine when it’s cold, dry quickly, and they’re supposed to look wrinkled. I always take a couple of neutral t-shirts I could wear under a sweater or jacket and still look presentable. I also love Uniqlo’s Airismand Heattechunderthings. In winter if I were to take an extra sweater, it would be a dressy V-neck like this that would look fine at any sort of function, in a color that works with whatever shirts I’m traveling with.
Maximum two pairs of shoes.
Those are the shoes you wear on the plane and on your days off, and the shoes you wear the rest of the time. For years I never traveled with an extra pair of shoes–I wore the same leather Clarks every day. That’s even better. Trust me, you are not going to lose your shoes! You don’t need a back-up pair.
These Dansko Franny shoes go with everything in my suitcase, pants and dresses. I could get by with only these, but…
…these days I try to get some exercise every day while I’m on the road, so I wear these ultra-lightweight slip-on, ridiculously comfortable Sketchers. These are my airport/day off shoes, and I pack the Danskos.
I don’t pack for extreme weather.
Book tours are not outdoorsy affairs. I’m mostly dashing from airport to hotel to bookstore and back. I don’t pack a heavy coat or an umbrella. I do take a scarf (which goes with all the outfits) and a knit cap to protect my hair from weather. If I’m flying into truly terrible weather, I’ll take a lightweight raincoat like this, but again, it’s just to keep the rain/snow off while I’m dashing to the car. Mostly I try not to travel in bad weather!
I love travel cubes.
One for my two outfits and extras, and the other for pajamas and underclothes. Get the kind with a clean side and a dirty side so you can keep track of what you need to wash.
In the last year and a half, I’ve held a series of art auctions to benefit groups like Planned Parenthood, Pro Publica, and the American Refugee Committee. With your help, I was able to donate over $9000 to groups that were fighting the good fight. But as we move closer to election season, I know that what matters most is electing good people to office.
That’s why I’m dedicating my latest batch of paintings–32 in all–to Swing Left’s Immediate Impact Fund. These funds will go to district races around the country where they can have the biggest impact. I’ll donate 100% of the purchase price of all of these paintings, and if you win a painting, I’ll enclose a donation receipt so you can see the total amount that you helped to raise.
Auctioning off paintings for a good cause has also been good for me. I’m determined not to worry and fret over world affairs every minute of the day. So I spend some time making art, and I sell that art to benefit causes I believe in. The paintings you see here represent every single work of art I’ve made since I moved to Portland last fall. (Well, except the stuff in my sketchbooks, which are just for me.) To see more of my art, check out Instagram.
Go here to see all the paintings and to place a bid. Please, tell your friends, bid early and often, and help me raise some money!
Our contest is now CLOSED! Thanks, everybody, for entering. If you happen to just be in love with our prizes and desperately want one, you can order one for yourself here.
The fourth installment in the Kopp Sisters series is here! Well, almost. It’ll be released in September, but if you’d like to pre-order your copy now, I’ll send you a present! Here’s how it works:
If you pre-order a copy of the fourth Kopp Sisters novel, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, I’ll mail you a signed bookplate AND you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a Miss (or Mr., or Ms) Just Won’t Quit t-shirt of your very own. Or you can have a coffee mug. Or coasters.
- Pre-order from your favorite bookseller. (links here)
- Forward your email receipt, or snap a photo, to promo@amy stewart.com with CONTEST in the subject line.
- Include your shipping address! This one’s important!
- I will mail you a bookplate with one of the characters’ real signature (in the form of a rubber stamp) and mine.
- I’ll also enter you in a drawing to win one of our fabulous personalized prizes. (You can actually just buy one if you want to. But winning is so much fun!)
- US only, enter by Aug 31. Winner announced by Sept. 10.