When I travel, I always take a sketchbook to keep a record of the trip (and, honestly, to entertain myself, because there are only so many old churches one can tour in a day). Here’s a video tour of my latest sketchbook, and you can always see more on Instagram.
But what happens when a page in a sketchbook goes horribly wrong? Now, I’ve filled lots of sketchbooks with practice and lessons, and every single page in those books could be described as “wrong”–although I’d call it “learning.” Those pages aren’t meant for anyone else to see, much less judge.
But sometimes, we artists do get focused on the results, and we want to be able to show our pretty travel sketchbooks to our friends when we get home. So what happens if, on one page, you try to draw a boat and it ends up looking like a turtle–drawn by a five year-old? What do you do when you make a mess?
One option is to just leave it. I do. If anybody’s flipping through my sketchbooks and they pause on a page of weird, awful, wrong drawings, I’ll either say nothing and let them keep flipping, or I’ll say, “That’s what we call a practice page.”
Some artists will glue two unfortunate pages together. I don’t like to do that, because you might not have two unfortunate pages next to each other, and besides, I hate to waste paper. Also, it makes for a weird, bulky, don’t-look-at-this page in the middle of the book, which seems somehow shameful (to me, anyway), and I don’t want shame in my sketchbooks.
Another option is to cover it up with collage. I travel with a glue stick for this very reason. Ticket stubs, bits of tourist maps, newspaper headlines, even a silly drawing or note on a Post-It…you can find some bits and pieces and glue them down. Like this:
Or–if the drawing’s light enough–why not just write on top of it? I did this dull little watercolor that just made me sad to look at, but then I wrote on top of it and the whole thing seemed much more interesting to me. Bad drawings make great backgrounds.
Every month in my newsletter, I offer readers a chance to win the book of their choice if they ask me a question. I pick a question to answer in the next newsletter, then I send them their book. This month, an aspiring author asked me, “I have 2 novels being shopped by my lit agent, at the moment I’m trying to decide whether a website is worth my time, energy or financial investment. Do you think an author’s website is worth having before they have anything published?”
The answer is YES, YES, YES, a thousand times YES! Here’s why.
It shows agents and publishers that you are a professional and that you are capable of doing simple tasks on the Internet. This sounds silly to say in 2019, but some publishing professionals are still suffering PTSD from the days, not too long ago, when authors refused to even get an email address. You have to show them that you can handle some business basics.
A website allows those agents and publishers to get a glimpse of you from another perspective. Yes, they have your manuscript/proposal, your cover letter, and whatever else you’ve put together. But if they Google you, they can just see you in a slightly different light. Even if your website gives them the same information they already have in front of them, it just helps to see it out there, in the world.
Your website is your calling card. It’s your doorstep. If you’re an aspiring author (or artist of any kind), you have ambitions to put yourself out there in the world. This is the first step. It doesn’t matter how new, inexperienced, or aspiring you are. Grab that domain name and build yourself a home online, even if it’s a rudimentary, temporary home.
A few years ago, I taught creative writing in an MFA program. I asked how many students had a website, or had even registered a domain name. Only one or two had. I was astonished. They were spending a fortune to earn a degree in writing, with the hopes of making it their career, but they hadn’t taken the simple step of a single-page website?
So. Put on some nice music, pour yourself a drink, and get this done in an hour. Here’s what you do.
First, register your name as your website domain if it’s available. If you can’t get your name, try for YourNameAuthor.com or YourNameBooks.com or YourNameWriter.com or something like that. (Don’t bother with .org, .biz, etc. Just get a good .com site) Do this today. At GoDaddy, you can register your domain for about $10/year. You can set up this domain anywhere, not just at GoDaddy. GoDaddy simply handles the registration and ownership. (and lots of other companies do this, too.)
Second, build a website. This does not have to be a massive, awful project. Pick a template. Do not spend hours looking at templates. Pick the first clean, simple one you see. Upload your photo, your bio, a contact form, and your social media links. You can quickly set up a page like this on GoDaddy, Squarespace, Wix, and many other sites. This is going to cost about $10/month no matter where you do it. Don’t agonize over which service to use. You might change your mind later once you have some books to sell. That’s OK. Just get something up there.
Third: Once you’ve recovered from that phase of the project, dive back in for another hour. Add a second page or section called Projects (or something like that. Writing. Painting. Articles. Stories. Whatever your work is called). On that page or section, at the very least, make a list of links to whatever it is that you’ve already done. Even better, add little thumbnail photos so there’s something nice and visual to go along with this list. It can include articles or stories you’ve published, interviews you’ve given, YouTube videos, a pie-eating contest you won…whatever you’ve got.
Ultimately, yes, you will need a more robust website kind of like mine. You might have to build it on a different platform, like WordPress. You might want to pay someone to do the basic construction so that you just go in and add text and pictures and updates. That’s what I do. (and by the way, my website is a straight-up copy of three famous authors’ websites. I took ideas from each, sent screen shots to my designer, and told her to adapt those ideas to my site. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.)
If you haven’t found her yet, Jane Friedman is a great resource for website questions and everything an author might want to know about the business side of things.
Just get it done! Good luck!
When I was on book tour recently, someone in the audience asked me what I thought about MFAs. I didn’t have much time to answer, but I told her that I have mixed feelings about a university arts education, and that I like the idea of a DIY MFA. That’s what I did. I’ve spent some money on my arts education, but I’ve done it over a thirty-year period and I’ve been selective and intentional about what I studied and why. I promised to post a longer answer about what I did (and what anyone can do) – so here it is.
I’m not categorically opposed to MFAs. I’ve taught in an MFA program, and found my students to be hard-working, diligent, curious, and committed. A few have gone on to publish books or find work in their creative field. But an MFA isn’t for everyone. Here’s why:
Who Has the Money?
Have you been offered a scholarship or grant? Great! Go for it.
But nobody, in my opinion, should go into massive debt to get a fine arts education, unless they already have a career (or a spouse) with a steady paycheck and can comfortably afford the loan payments on their regular income. (Even then, think twice. Anyone’s career can take a hit. Anyone’s health can take a hit. Anyone’s marriage, for that matter, can take a hit. Don’t put your future self in an untenable position.) An MFA at a prestigious school, including room and board, can run to six figures. Attending a local public university or taking a low-residency program could set you back twenty or thirty grand.
Even if you can pay cash for an MFA—think twice about that. Maybe you’re better off putting half in your retirement account and using the other half to fund your DIY MFA. (More on that in a minute)
Who Has the Time?
The burden on your time is another consideration. Most people working toward an MFA are juggling schoolwork with other obligations, namely jobs and families. If the only way to get through your MFA program is to put in fourteen hour days and marathon, late-night homework sessions, you’re probably not getting the full benefit of the program.
Learning a new skill takes time and attention—and by time, I mean chronological time. You need silence, empty moments, and opportunities to ruminate, tinker, and practice. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years for a new skill or concept to really sink in. That can’t be rushed. If you’re going too fast, and worried about a hundred different responsibilities, it’s possible that a good deal of your expensive arts education simply isn’t sinking in.
What Are You Actually Going to Learn?
There’s no guarantee that an MFA program will teach you what you want to learn. Every painter I know complains that they weren’t taught to draw and paint in art school. Writers are rarely given more than a perfunctory overview of the publishing process.
You might be taught how to teach in an MFA program—but is an adjunct faculty position really the best way to make a living while you pursue your art? Would you be better off working as an electrician, a pharmacist, or a dog walker—any kind of gig that doesn’t make a demand on your creative energy?
Why not do it yourself?
For all these reasons, I propose the DIY MFA. Take half the money you would’ve spent on an MFA—and by “take” the money, I mean either set it aside, if you (miraculously) already have the cash sitting around, or set up a separate bank account and transfer in HALF of what you would’ve spent on student loan payments. (Or less! You’d be amazed at what you can do with $100 a month.)
With that money, do the following:
Workshops. Find the artists you love and follow them on social media. Sign up for their newsletters. They’ll let you know when they’re teaching. Be prepared to enroll the minute their course registration goes live. Be prepared to travel. Putting yourself on a plane, and renting a place to stay, are worthwhile education expenses.
And if the artist you love doesn’t teach? Email and ask. Offer to host a workshop, if you think you can round up a dozen friends and locate a teaching space. I only teach writing when I’m invited to. If someone emailed me with an offer like this, I’d consider it.
Find the ateliers and art academies that offer courses that interest you, and follow them. Here in Portland, I can take art workshops at the Oregon Society of Artists, just a few blocks from my house. Writing workshops are always on offer at Literary Arts. Consider the cities to which you can easily travel. Do you have friends with a guest room in Santa Fe? Look for workshops there.
And don’t forget that free and low-cost workshops might pop up at the library, the parks and recreation department, the senior center, and your local college’s adult ed program.
And when you get into those workshops: Ask the instructor to teach you what you want to learn. Most artists who teach are happy to modify their lesson plan, within reason. Just ask politely, and be specific. I’ve said things in art workshops like, “I love the way you show light hitting a surface. Can you demonstrate that?”
Ask if you can take process photos for your personal use. Keep every handout. Remember every exercise. Trust me, you can get an entire semester’s education out of a three-day workshop if you keep doing the work after the workshop ends.
And here’s a bonus: After your workshop, invite some artist friends over and share a bit of what you learned. It’ll help you to make sense of it, and it’s a great way to extend a little arts education into your circle.
Finally…after the workshop ends, keep in touch with those instructors! Follow them on social media. Buy their work and recommend it to others. Send them a thank-you note. These are your professors. It’s OK to stay in touch with them.
Online tutorials. There’s a lifetime’s worth of free and low-cost art education available online. I love these lively, funny basic drawing videos on YouTube. I learned everything I know about urban sketching from BluPrint. Peter Martin teaches jazz piano online. Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass on screenwriting looks amazing.
(Pro tip: Take these classes with a friend. Invite somebody over ever Tuesday night and do an online class, or a chapter out of an instruction book.)
Practice with a group. I’m not a fan of critique groups, but I LOVE practice groups. My dad played jazz in his living room with three other musicians for years. They weren’t looking to perform: they were just after a good practice session together. I know writers who make a date to write together, and writers who get together to spitball ideas for stories without ever showing each other a page of what they’ve written. I go out sketching with my local Urban Sketchers chapter. Weekly life drawing groups are available just about anywhere.
Find a walking buddy for your art. It’ll get you out of your rut, keep you accountable, and expose you to fresh ideas.
Create your own retreat. Renting a studio space is part of your arts education. Escaping to a cabin in the woods is part of your arts education. Hiring a babysitter is part of your arts education. Taking unpaid leave from work is part of your arts education. All of these things take money, but remember, this is the money that you saved by not getting an MFA. If it allows you the time and space to practice, explore, and make work—do it.
Buy subscriptions, memberships, and season tickets. Get a membership at your art museum, at the tier that offers you invitations to lectures and admission to partner museums around the country. Buy season tickets to a literary lecture series, symphony, or theater company. Subscribe to lavishly printed photography journals. Pay extra for online access to all of PBS’s arts programming. Support the groups that support artists, and go see great work. (Hey, maybe you can persuade family & friends to give something like this as a gift instead of that sweater you won’t wear!)
Buy experimental materials. One of the great benefits of a university education is that you’re required to take courses outside your area of expertise. A painter might have to take a printmaking or sculpture class. A novelist might take a poetry class. A violinist might learn a little percussion. In art school, you are forced to experiment. So do that!
Recently, I saw a Richard Dibenkorn exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. I fell in love with his big, loose works on paper, and longed to go out and buy an enormous pad of paper and a bottle of ink. I just wanted to make big, loose, swirly, inky marks all over everything. If I was in art school, I could just run over to the studio and mess around with a bottle of ink or a lump of clay. But I wasn’t–so I ran over to the art supply store, bought some ink, and made a big glorious mess at home.
Turn yourself loose at the art supply store. If you have a sudden hankering to turn your novel into a screenplay, download Scrivner and give it a go. If you’re a classically-trained actor and you find yourself longing to make silly video shorts, go get a tripod and give it a try. Students approach their work with a spirit of experimentation, because the curriculum demands it, and because nothing’s set in concrete yet. You can do the same!
And even this can be done on the cheap. Don’t forget that musical instruments, easels, and unopened tubes of paint turn up regularly on Craigslist and eBay. Some artists hold swap meets to trade lightly-used gear and tools. Libraries are now making everything from 3-D printers to welding equipment available to their patrons.
In conclusion…None of this is free. It’s just cheaper than an MFA.
It’s also not over in two years. This is a blueprint for a lifelong education in the arts, paid on the installment plan. I’m three decades away from college and I’m still taking classes.
It still takes commitment, curiosity, community, and a lesson plan. It just happens to be a lesson plan of your own making.
Advance copies are turning up out in the real world! The fifth Kopp Sisters novel won’t be out until September, but you you can enter to win advance copies all summer long on Goodreads (add it to your to-read shelf to be notified), and if you are a librarian, bookseller, or book reviewer, you can request a copy on NetGalley. Oh, and I’ll have some extra copies to give away through my newsletter, too.
It’s time to throw another art bomb at the patriarchy. I’m offering up a dozen paintings for auction on eBay, and 100% of the proceeds will go to either the ACLU or Planned Parenthood. That’s right, every single penny you spend will benefit one of these two groups–I’m not keeping anything for myself. These are mostly oil paintings, but for the first time I’m including a couple of watercolors.
I started doing this after the 2016 election, when I was feeling hopeless and frightened and not really sure what the point of painting was. Why bother with pictures of pretty places, when our world was about to be upended in unpredictable and terrifying ways?
But you know, painting keeps me sane. It’s a lovely escape to paint a pretty picture of a pretty place I’ve been. So I decided that I would absolutely not stop painting, but that I would sell every single thing I painted to benefit groups that are fighting the good fight. Now I hope you’ll pitch in, bid on a painting, share this with your friends, and help me raise some funds. Overthrowing the patriarchy is not cheap. Your donations matter.
Bidding ends May 27.
Here’s a link to all twelve eBay auctions. Sometimes this link doesn’t work, so here are links to each individual auction:
I just picked up this book at Powell’s. In the introduction is the most extraordinary passage–it could apply to any creative pursuit, so I’m sharing it here:
“Develop an internal tutor. When you begin drawing, often you’ll find you’re accompanied by an internal critic, pointing out your mistakes and making you question your drawing. This can be more restricting than a lack of ability. You need time to look and draw without internal criticism. Instead, try to develop an internal tutor, allowing you to stand back and look objectively at your drawing, picking out its best qualities and what can be improved upon.”
Imagine–an inner tutor! A voice inside your head that can give you a friendly nudge, encourage you to sharpen a detail or rethink the direction of a line. What a helpful and handy voice to have on board!
Everyone wants to silence their internal critic. But have you ever thought of cultivating an internal tutor?
I watch this video at least once a year.
Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone give this fantastic piece of writing advice about how they put their stories together: They write up all of their story beats, and make sure that each idea, each moment, each action, can be connected with the words “but” or “therefore.”
If they find they can only connect their ideas by using “and”…well, they’re in trouble.
I can’t tell you how much this has helped me over the years, especially because I’m writing books based on a true story. I know what the events are, I know the order in which they occur. But what I don’t know is WHY everything happened the way it did.
By writing out, and forcing myself to put a “but” or a “therefore” between every scene/beat/action/idea, I start to see cause and effect. Often I move characters around so I can put them at the center of the action, where they belong. I make sure they CAUSE things to happen, or fight AGAINST them.
Basically, it’s another way of thinking about cause and effect.
I even do this late in the process, after the book is written, when I’m deep into revisions. I’ll go back to index cards, summarize every scene on a card, and make sure I can link them with post-its that say BUT or THEREFORE. I always find the holes in my story this way.
Caveat: If you have more than one plot line going, do a different BUT/THEREFORE for each subplot. When you hook the whole thing back together again, there’s just no way around the fact that you’re going to have some MEANWHILEs in there.
Every month in my newsletter, I invite readers to ask me a question. I pick one that I’ll answer in the next newsletter, and send them the book of their choice. (you can get in on that here.)
One of this month’s questions came from another writer. She had a very specific question about a situation with her agent. I’ll rephrase the question more generally, for her privacy, but I thought it was worth answering here.
How do I know when it’s time to look for a new agent? My agent wasn’t able to sell my last book and I’m not sure I should give her the next one. Maybe we’re not on the same wavelength.
Here’s the thing: No two agents are alike. No two editors are alike. Nine publishers will reject a manuscript and the tenth will snatch it up and make a success of it.
How is this possible? You would think that any agent would be able to recognize a publishable manuscript, and any publisher would want to publish one. Weirdly, it doesn’t work that way. A good friend of mine was rejected by an agent I thought would be perfect for her, only to be picked up by another agent and land a good publishing deal right away.
So–is it possible you just have the wrong agent? Maybe. Is it possible that your agent’s feedback on your manuscript was misdirected and not in your best interest? Sure, that’s possible.
Let me give you an example: with my second Kopp novel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, one of the comments I received from an editor was, “I think you need to make the escaped fugitive more of a menace. I’m just not worried enough about the fact that he’s on the loose.”
So I could’ve made the fugitive into Hannibal Lecter. I could’ve turned the book into “a killer is on the loose and he must be stopped before he kills again.” But that wasn’t the kind of book I was trying to write. I didn’t want the readers to be worried about the fugitive’s next victim. I wanted them to be worried about Constance, and her job, and her future, and her well-being.
So I listened to that feedback, but I changed the novel in a different way. I made it more clear that the stakes were high for Constance. Another friend (who happens to be an editor) said, “You want people to be worried about Constance’s spirit.”
The point is–people can have a different vision for what kind of book you’re writing. Or they can sense that something’s wrong, but maybe they have a different idea about how to fix it than you do.
Here’s my suggestion. Treat this like the straightforward business conversation that it is. Your agent (and your editor, if and when you have one) are lovely people, but at the end of the day, they’re making business decisions. They will turn you loose if they can’t figure out how to make you a part of their business. They understand that you might have to do the same.
(Sidenote: I once told a friend who was waiting for an offer from a publisher: Remember that your publisher is not Santa Claus. This is not Christmas. It’s not a birthday present. It’s a business deal, one in which they get to write the contract and dictate the terms. Treat it like a business deal, because you can be sure they are.)
First–do give your agent a chance to read the next manuscript. It’s possible that all of her comments and feedback on the last book helped you to become a better writer, and that the new book benefits from her advice. If that’s the case, she absolutely should have a chance to launch your new book into the world. Remember, she doesn’t get paid until you get paid, so she’s invested a lot of unpaid labor into you so far. Maybe that’s about to pay off for both of you.
But if her comments on the new manuscript leave you feeling like things are still not right, it’s probably time to have an honest conversation about why your vision and hers don’t align. Remember, it’s YOUR book. Nobody’s forcing you to take anyone’s input. It’s okay to look for another agent.
And while you’re doing that, to distract yourself from the angst of an agent search. start your next book. Keep moving forward, and keep making art.
Here it is:
A two-hour writing session (I mean a serious session, no goofing around on the internet, but two hours of straight concentration and actual work) is as mentally taxing as taking a standardized test for two hours.
It’s as taxing as doing your taxes for two hours.
Meaning: after two hours, you are mentally drained.
Weirdly, I do not find this to be the case for other kinds of art. I can paint for two hours and I feel fine. I don’t think musicians are totally drained after two hours of playing the guitar.
Maybe two hours of trying to learn something NEW at the easel, or at the keyboard, would be exhausting. But the daily habit of making art? In my life, only writing takes such a toll.
The good news about this is that, after twenty years as a professional writer, I have figured this out about myself and I STOP after a couple of hours. I give it all my attention, all my focus, all my effort. I lock the door, I stay off the internet, I do the work. I write my pages.
But–when those couple of hours are over (or, more accurately, when those 1000 words are written, it just happens to take a couple of hours, more or less), I’m done. I don’t have another hour in me, so there’s no point in staring at the screen and trying to make it happen.
Now I plan my day around this. I give my writing the best few hours of the day (which, for me, is in the afternoon, after lunch) and for the rest of the day, I live my life. I go to the gym, I paint, I take care of some business-y tasks, maybe I do some research–but I don’t feel guilty about not putting in more time.
It helps that I don’t think of this as MY limit. I think of it as THE limit. It’s just a fact. Two hours = standardized test = you’re done for the day.
I just sent my editor a very early version of Book 6. While she’s reading it and making her notes, I thought I’d start to mull over Book 7.
This is just one of many methods I might use to start a novel. I didn’t invent it–I believe this is actually a screenwriting technique. Here’s how it works:
Start with one index card. Write the premise of the novel in just one line. It might be something like, “An ordinary boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school.” (If you’re not sure how to sum up your story in one line, read the one-liners in the New York Times bestseller list for examples.)
Then take that idea and break it down into three ideas. That might be:
- An ordinary boy with a terrible aunt and uncle receives an acceptance letter to a school for wizards.
- He goes off to wizarding school, where he makes new friends and learns how to be a wizard.
- He faces off against an enemy and learns some secrets from his parents’ past.
OK, that may not be a perfect three-line summary of the first Harry Potter–it’s been a while since I read it. But you get the idea. You can think of it more or less as Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.
Or: the beginning the middle, and the end.
Or: Before, During, and After.
Then you take those three cards, and you write three cards about each of them, for a total of nine cards.
That’s as far as I got yesterday. But what comes next is–you guessed it–take those nine cards, and write three cards about each of them, for a total of 27 cards.
Now, I will warn you that at this point it gets a little weird. You might not have three ideas for each of your nine cards. You might find yourself getting a little too detailed in some cards, and staying pretty vague in others. The fact is that most three-act stories aren’t evenly divided into thirds. The first third and the last third are generally much shorter.
But don’t worry about that! These are only index cards! They’re ideas. I’ve filled hundreds of index cards with bad, unworkable ideas. If you have an idea, but you think it won’t work, write it down anyway! It’s just a little card.
Now it’s time for the final step, which is to take all 27 cards and to write three cards about each one. This will give you 81 cards. And you know what 81 cards is?
81 cards is 81 scenes.
81 scenes is a book. Or a screenplay.
Generally speaking, of course! Your mileage may vary. But I promise you that if you can come up with 81 somewhat interconnected ideas for what might happen in your book, then you are on your way.
It’s not the only way to start. It’s not foolproof. Remember–a lot of those cards will have weird, wrong ideas on them! But now you have something tangible that you can mess around with.
Believe it or not, this idea is also super helpful later in the process, when your manuscript is a mess and you’re not sure how to fix it. Take that big pile of pages you’ve written, and translate it back into index cards–starting with just one line, then three, then nine…
You will find the holes in your story! You will have new ideas. You will start to move those cards around, and it will show you how you can move pages around.
At the very least, you’ll feel super-productive. It’s better than staring at a blank screen.