Sunday, March 30, 2014

COSCBWI Meeting March 2014: Character Craft Activity

This month's COSCBWI meeting took members back to the days of kindergarten scissors and glue sticks with a fun arts-and-crafts activity!

Have you ever been writing or illustrating and come to a roadblock where you just don't feel like you know your character very well?  Maybe she's in front of a snack machine and you have no idea what she'd buy, or she's wishing she was somewhere else and you don't know if that place should be a wild jungle or her favorite aunt's house?

Assistant Regional Advisor, Andrea Hall, shared a fun activity that can get you thinking about your character on a level beyond the color of her hair and eyes.  All you need is a pair of scissors, glue, and some magazines you don't mind chopping up.  And what do you get when you mix those three things together?  A collage!

There are many ways to become more acquainted with your character, from writing letters to them to experimenting with free-writing exercises.  But collages get you out of the "writer's mind" and into something more visual.  All you have to do is leaf through some magazines with an open mind, gathering pictures and words that fit your character.  They can be images of setting elements from your story, clothes they would wear, and food they would eat.  They can be words that describe them, or plot points in their journey.  You may even discover something surprising about them that you didn't know before, or land on the perfect picture that shows them from head to toe.  Put them all together, and you've got a handy reference for all your writing and illustrating needs.

There was a lot of giggling and excitement as members grabbed their supplies and spent the meeting creating collages.  This is the collage I made about Shrimp, a character in my novel, Pirate Ferret.  He's a young boy with a heart for adventure.  My collage shows some places he goes in my novel, words that describe him, and elements of the story.  (But alas, no ferrets.  While I found plenty of lipstick ads and high-heeled shoes, I just couldn't find a single ferret picture while leafing through Cosmopolitan...)  You can take your own collage in any direction you choose.  Just follow your heart (and scissors) and have fun with it!

If you'd like to learn more about COSCBWI, be sure to check out the Facebook group and the new (still work in progress) website at  I hope to see you at next month's meetings on April 9th and 23rd!

7 Year Writing Anniversary

At the end of February seven years ago, I sat down in my college apartment and typed the first sentence of The Beast of Bannock.  It was exciting, it was terrifying, and it set me on the path I've been traveling for the better part of a decade.

Each year around this time, I like to doodle a little portrait of my dear boy-turned-equine character, Ellis.  It helps me see my art progress, and reminds me why I still love the very first character I created, even if his story is still unpublished.  This year, my writing anniversary corresponded with a busy (but fun!) time when I was involved with my Adobe Illustrator class.  I didn't have time to take on the Ellis painting project I had in mind, and I didn't want to force myself to do it anyway and be a grump about it.  (Because that would defy the whole purpose of spending quality time with the character I love, now wouldn't it?)

So instead of sharing an art piece to celebrate my seven-year writing anniversary, in true writer fashion, I'm just going to wax poetic about a metaphor for a while.

This is my SCBWI folder.  I take it with me to every local chapter meeting, shoving it in the bottom of my bag and forgetting how wretched it looks until it's sitting in front of me in all it's ugly, embarrassing glory.  I've been saying I need to replace it for the past year or two, but still I cling to this ratty old thing.  And when I took it out the other week, I realized it's the perfect reflection of myself and my writing.

Now, why am I like a manky, decrepit, ready-for-the-trash folder?  We both started out bright, fresh, and shiny all the years ago.  I bought it right before my first SCBWI meeting, just shortly after my first writing anniversary.  My head was as empty as its pockets, and the sunny yellow color matched my optimism and enthusiasm.  I saw nothing on the horizon but clear skies and smooth sailing.

Years later, well, it's not-so shiny anymore.  Just look at it.

It's scratched, crinkled, and torn.  It more closely resembles the color of forgotten, back-of-the-fridge mustard than daffodils and sunshine.  (And it probably smells about as good.)  It's been dragged through the trenches and seen many a dark day.  It's worn thin and falling apart at the seams.  It is, in one word, a mess.

But now, let's take a look inside.

While the inside is, well, also a mess--it is a glorious, information-packed mess.  Between the fading, fraying bindings, the thing is bursting with several years' worth of notes, handouts, and worksheets.  There are handy tips, gems of advice, and tales of inspiration.  There are exercises, brainstorming sessions, and maps to success.  There are failed experiments and reality checks, alongside encouraging words to try again.  There are databases, resources, and countless pearls of wisdom.  (And yeah, there's probably a lot of useless junk in there, too.)  There is more knowledge than can fit within the pockets, and still I keep cramming in more.  There is unreadable chicken scratch, dangerous edges that can give you papercuts, and...

Okay, I think this metaphor has officially run it's course.

But you get my drift.  Beaten and bruised on the outside; brimming with wisdom, experience, and all sorts of ooey goodness on the inside.  And just like that tattered binding refuses to quit, I do, too.  There's still plenty of life in both of us yet.

So on this seven-year writing anniversary, I'm bringing out the duct tape, patching things up, and soldiering on.  Whatever point you are in your own writing or illustrating career, I hope you're hanging in there, too.  Maybe our folders can meet up sometime and share their battle stories.  (I won't make fun of your murky, used-bath-water blue folder if you don't make fun of my rancid mustard one.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March 2014: COSCBWI Illustrator Meeting

This month's COSCBWI Illustrator Meeting was all about creating characters.  Illustrator Coordinator, Stella Hickman, gave an encore presentation on how to create a character model using aluminum foil, wire, tape, and Sculpy molding clay.  (You can read the step by step process on my February Illustrator Meeting summary here.)  Last month, Stella demonstrated the sculpture process by creating a kitten from her current picture book project.  After being baked and painted at home, she brought the adorable feline back again to show us all how sturdy and spiffy the figures are once complete.  

Since Stella's kitten was all done, she crafted a head sculpture during this demonstration.  While full-body figures are great for full-body illustrations, Stella explained how a sculpture of a character's head and facial features can be just as important.  By having a close-up reference of a character's nose, eyes, mouth, and other features, an artist can make their illustrations that much more accurate, consistent, and detailed.  It's also another great reference to use when creating tricky perspectives, since a head sculpture can be moved in any direction an artist desires.  The very best thing to do, though, is to create both a full-body AND head model of your character so you have the best of both worlds for all your referencing needs!

Stella urged the group members to make their own character model (full-body or head, or both if you're up for the challenge!) and to bring their finished figures to the April meeting.  It doesn't have to be perfect; just have fun and see what those fingers can sculpt!  You may be surprised by how much you learn about your character by turning him or her into your very own 3D model!  :)

I hope to see you at the April meeting!  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Picture Book Vectoring 101

Today I get to finally show you what I've been working on for the past month...

My very first vector illustration!

Back in January, I attended a neat (and free!) webinar hosted by illustrator, Wendy Martin.  (You can find it here:  It gave a brief introduction on the ins and outs of Adobe Illustrator, and was a sneak-peek to Martin's full online course on vectoring picture book art.  I've always found vector art intriguing since you can expand or shrink your image as much as you want, and it doesn't distort at all.  (Because seriously, who likes jenky, blurry pictures when you resize digital art?  NOT ME!)  But using vector programs has always been a bit baffling to me, so I jumped at the chance to learn about it from a pro.

Six weeks, a few headaches, and many happy-dances later, I have my first vector illustration complete!  We progressed through our pieces each week in class, from learning how to make our own custom inking brushes, to practicing how to achieve a soft, painterly look with shading.  (Which isn't easy since Illustrator doesn't have airbrushes and smudge tools like non-vector programs, such as my personal favorite, Photoshop.)  What I really loved, though, is how much meticulous editing you can do in the program--like moving a section of line work however you want with anchor points.  You can even move anchor points on blocks of color with the best tool ever created--the Blob Brush.  (My inner nit-picker may have gone just a little bit crazy with that feature!)

Each itty-bitty square is a movable anchor point.  Holy guacamole!

As for my illustration itself, you may have noticed this is the first bird piece I can add to my portfolio.  (It was time for a break from woodland critters!)  I knew I wanted to do something bright, happy, and fun for my piece, and these two little birds just popped into my head.  I'm not sure what's ruffled the feathers of the blue parrot, but clearly, the red fellow is not helping matters with his obnoxious grin and dancing.  And why are they wearing fruit hats?  Because fruit hats are awesome.  'Nuff said.  ;)

While I feel like I've barely scratched the surface on what Illustrator can do, I'm very happy that I now understand the fundamentals of the program, and I'm pleased with my progress over the past few weeks.  I still have a long way to go, but vector art definitely isn't so scary anymore.  I even have Martin's seal--er, raccoon--of approval to prove I survived my first vector experience!

If you're a digital artist interested in learning how to make vector illustrations, I highly recommend taking this course.  (The live class is over now, but they are going to offer the video replays as an additional course for anyone interested.  It's also available at  And if you want to see what you can really achieve with a vector program, head on over to Martin's website:  She works primarily in Illustrator, and it's amazing what she can do.

I hope you all like the newest, feathered addition to my portfolio!  I'm looking forward to spending more time with Illustrator--and that oh-so-awesome Blob Brush--in the future! 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

COSCBWI Meeting Feb 2014: First Pages

February's COSCBWI meeting was packed to the gills with eager writers and illustrators ready for a critique!  Critiques are so important to both writers and illustrators, and are a wonderful way to improve one's work.  During the February meeting, members were invited to bring the first page of their middle grade or young adult manuscript, or the first 500 words of a picture book manuscript, to share with the group.  Members read each story aloud, then gave constructive feedback on what was great about the piece, and what could be done to improve it.  (And as any seasoned writer knows, there is always room for improvement!)

Here are a few tips and considerations the group discussed:

1) Make your first page as interesting as possible.  You want to entice your reader to turn to page two.  (Then page three...then four...until they can't stop reading!)  Think about the "hook" that will make your first page stand out, and read published books to see what makes a first page memorable to you.  Is it a first page that makes you laugh?  Is it one with a sense of mystery?  A strong voice?  All of the above?  Read, read, read, then revise, revise, revise!  

2) Make sure you don't "info dump" on your first page and give too much back story.  You don't want your reader to be confused about who the main character is and what they are doing, but you don't need to talk about every branch of their family tree or give detailed descriptions of what their cat ate for breakfast.  (Unless it's a story about a family trying to get their sick cat to eat.  Or about a family of cats trying to decide what to eat for breakfast.  Or about a little boy who doesn't want his family to eat his cat for breakfast.  Or...) 

3) If you're an author/illustrator, don't finish an entire book's worth of illustrations before querying your manuscript.  It's a lot of work and risky, considering an agent might suggest you make your boy character a girl, or an editor might think your city setting should really be a desert!  Instead, prepare a book dummy and one or two polished illustrations to show them what you can do, but also allow wiggle-room for professional feedback.

4) If you're writing a picture book, be sure to read recently published books to see how the genre is trending.  Word counts in picture books are getting smaller all the time, and text is becoming very integrated with the illustrations.  Understanding the highly-competitive picture book market can help you hone your manuscript until it's just what agents and editors are looking for!  (Plus, it's just fun to read picture books--which is why you're writing them, right?)

Since COSCBWI does at least one First Page Critique meeting a year, I have three past summaries you can check out, too!  (You can find them herehere, and here.)  The discussions always tailor to the types of manuscripts members bring in, so you may find some helpful tips and tidbits from these prior years.

The new COSCBWI website is still under construction at the moment, so be sure to tune in to the Facebook group for all the latest news and updates.  (It's under "Central Southern Ohio SCBWI".)  You can always send me a question here on my blog, too, and I'll get it where it needs to go.  March's COSCBWI Illustrator Meeting will be on March 12th at 7:00 PM at the Upper Arlington Tremont Library.  March's COSCBWI Writer Meeting will be on March 26th at 7:00 PM at the Upper Arlington Lane Road Library.  I hope to see you there!