Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Illustrating Children's Books: Debbie Ohi Dishes About I'M BORED

Debbie Ohi is a rockstar. Not only is she a writer and illustrator, but she is an extremely involved member of the kid lit community. As the founder of Inkspot and Inklings, one of the very first online writing communities, Debbie has a fresh voice and a wonderful sense of humour (check out her webcomics!).

With the recent launch of her very first children’s book, I’M BORED, Debbie somehow managed to find time to answer some of my pressing questions! Read this interview to discover how this rejected manuscript turned into a book publishing deal, how writers and illustrators work together, and what Debbie learned during this collaborative project.

What was it like working alongside writer, Michael Ian Black? Any advice for writers looking to collaborate with illustrators?

Picture book illustrators don't usually interact with the authors, so although I was working closely with Michael's editor and my art director at Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, I never interacted directly with Michael during the process. It was only after the book was finished that Michael and I have had some contact, and I've found him to be always supportive and enthusiastic. I had so much fun working on his story!

Advice for writers looking to collaborate with illustrators: Be warned that in most cases, publishers prefer to choose their own illustrators. You can submit as a team if you'd like, but you may be hurting your chances of getting published. Some great advice here.

Did you discover something about PB writing and yourself while working on this project?

It's easy to write a picture book. It's much more of a challenge to write a good, unique picture book that stands out in the marketplace.

Do you have any writing and publishing advice for those who are getting ready to submit their PB manuscripts?

If you're one of those people that think “hey, I can whip off a picture book on the side for some easy money,” then you're on the wrong track.

My strongest advice: Go to your local bookstore and library, and read as many picture books as you can. Read older picture books, newer picture books. For the picture books that you enjoy the most, analyze why you like them so much. Look at how the illustrations and text complement each other, and how neither would be as strong on their own.

Also, when writing a PB manuscript, leave room for the illustrator. I've found that early attempts at PB manuscripts often read like short stories rather than picture book texts.

Not only is I’M BORED Debbie’s first children’s book, but it was rejected two years before publication. To find out how she overcame the rejection blues and turned this into a book deal, click here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Creating A Great Setting: An Interview With Susan Dennard

One of the best parts of reading is being shown a new world. Setting can often serve as its own character in a book. When I think of my favourite settings, I think of The Chronicles of Narnia, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Kite Runner, and To Kill a Mockingbird. All these settings are dynamic, as they are constantly evolving and ultimately, helping to unfold the story and re-shape the characters involved.

When I heard about debut author Susan Dennard and her book, Something Strange and Deadly, I just had to contact her for an interview. Read more about how Susan used an original setting to create and develop her plot and characters.

In your YA novel, Something Strange and Deadly, you created an interesting setting, as the story takes place in 1876 Philadelphia. How did you go about developing this setting?

Well, I started by doing a ton of research (I mean weeks and weeks and months). Since Philadelphia is, you know, a real place, I wanted to make sure I got everything right in terms of locations and scenery. But on top of that, I really wanted to get the year right--what did 1876 feel like? How did a young woman behave? What would she eat for breakfast and wear to dinner? I found all those little details, and then as I wrote, I dropped them in.

One thing that historical writers will tell you is that you always do way more research than you actually use--if I had dropped in everything I learned, I'd have bored the reader to death. There's a very fine balance between not enough detail to paint the scene and so much detail the story gets bogged down.

How did the setting influence your plot?

One of the reasons I actually chose 1876 Philadelphia was because I wanted to have the Centennial Exhibition as a backdrop to my story. I honestly thought: how horrible and terrifying would it be for this giant celebration--the first American World's Fair in which people came from all over the world to share their countries' latest technological advances and artistic endeavors--to be crashed by walking corpses?

Additionally, I really liked how much conflict the time period would automatically add for a girl like Eleanor. She wouldn't be able to leave the house with a chaperon; she would be expected to behave a certain way at all times; she'd probably be very sheltered and stifled. On top of that, corsets are no laughing matter--can you imagine outrunning zombies when you're ribs are constricted so much you can barely breathe? I loved that there were all these layers of conflict already inherent to the time period. It gave extra obstacles for Eleanor to hurdle.

How did the setting contribute to the development of your characters?

Because girls of high society were so protected and so restricted to certain behaviors/clothing/ambitions, Eleanor was at a pretty big disadvantage from page one. She'd never had much need to think for herself, and she'd certainly had no exposure to people outside of her social circle.

Her setting made her the naive character that she began the book as, but because she's also curious and brave to the point of stupidity, she was able to step outside the confines of her society and experience other walks of life (or death--haha!). Of course, stepping outside and accepting outside aren't always the same thing, and it takes Eleanor the course of the book to really find her place in the world.

For many writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers, setting is crucial to story and characters. What advice do you have for them when creating setting?

There's a balance between story and setting--whether the book is historical, mystery, or whatever. You might have created the most amazing fantasy world ever, but if you spend too much time describing it, you're going to bore your reader no matter what.

The key is to only show the parts of the setting that matter during each scene.
Oh--your character is running through a graveyard with zombies hot on her trail? We definitely don't need to know the history of the graveyard or why that big monument in her path is significant to the local town, but we do need to know there's a big monument in her path. We also should probably know the character's familiarity (or lack thereof) with the place. Is she stumbling and lost or does she know exactly where she's going because she visits her mother's grave everyday?

Setting is more than just what the world looks like or its history--it's also a critical tool for showing character and developing plot.

Learn more about Susan and her writing here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Romance Writing: What I Learned From Adriana Trigiani

Although one of my favourite books is Jane Eyre, I don’t read romances very often. I did, however, recently read Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife and fell in love with her writing. It had been a while since a romance pulled at my heartstrings, making me swoon over characters and setting. Here are three things Trigiani does exceptionally well in her romance, The Shoemaker’s Wife.

The sympathetic heroine is strong, resourceful, and kind.

Enza comes from a hard-working family who has strong beliefs in angels, Catholic prayer, and honesty. While Enza’s religious beliefs help her through many hardships, particularly emigrating from Italy to America, it is her strong moral compass that is so intriguing, amidst characters at the turn of the 20th Century, who seem to be losing faith in both religion and humanity.

Enza uses what she has to achieve her goals of starting a family, leading an honest life, and relying on her design skills for her livelihood. The relationship she has with Ciro Lazzari, who she meets at her sister’s funeral has never been easy. But it’s with Ciro that Enza is most content, especially later on in America. With Ciro, she finds comfort as he represents her home in Italy.

One of the most memorable pieces of dialogue that Enza says to Ciro:

“And I want—more than anything—to see my sister again. So I’m going to try my best in this life so that I’m sure to see her in the next one. I’m going to work hard, tell the truth, and be of some use to the people who care about me. I’m going to try, anyway.”

To me, this seemingly ordinary dialogue between Enza and Ciro reveals her true character. She is brave, good-natured, smart, and independent, a refreshing mix of qualities in a romance heroine. And it’s this mix of qualities that helps her survive.

Timing is everything and is the intangible, powerful thing that affects romance.

Enza and Ciro meet as young teenagers in the Italian Alps. They share a kiss—Enza’s first—which remains in both of their memories until they both reach America. They reunite in an American hospital shortly after, but the reunion is not satisfying:

“She tried to walk away quickly, but she found that the steps back to her  room were painful for an altogether different reason. There was no doubt: Ciro Lazzari had fallen in love with someone else.”

When Enza is discharged from the hospital, she loses touch with Ciro and tries to forget him. Enza moves to New York City and becomes a respected seamstress for the Opera while Ciro grows to be a talented shoemaker. They reunite again, but it may be too late. That is, at least, what you’re supposed to believe as the reader. Timing has never been favourable for either lover, as it separates them and reunites them, with the reunions so fleeting. Even as the two eventually marry and raise a family, timing once again, interrupts their romance.

Setting fuels romance.

In The Shoemaker’s Wife, the story begins in the Italian Alps, boasting a lush landscape and vivid colours. One of my favourite passages in the book describing the Italian setting is:

“Primavera in the Italian Alps was like a jewelry box opened in sunlight. Clusters of red peonies like ruffles of taffeta framed pale green fields, while white orchids climbed up the glittering graphite mountain walls.”

In these two sentences, Enza describes her home in the mountains, which she continues to long for as she travels to America. Her deep attachment to the majestic beauty of the Italian Alps is moving with the use of poetic and dreamy language.

While the setting in New York differs, romantic imagery continues:

“Trumpet vines cascaded down the drainpipe in shots of bold orange and soft green like fine silk tassels against the freshly pointed coral bricks. Purple hyacinths spilled out of antique white marble Roman urns on either side of the black-lacquered double entrance doors of the Milbank House at 11 West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village.”

At this point, Enza has finally left her awful factory job and terrible living conditions in Hoboken, New Jersey to begin an exciting life in New York. This very house becomes her first real sanctuary away from Italy. It’s one of the first passages that describes beauty and serenity in an American setting, signaling that the romance between Enza and Ciro is not over.

Two Italian peasants meet as teenagers whose destinies continue to intersect throughout their lives. It’s a basic premise, but it’s the sensual imagery, vivid characters, and chaotic timing that unfold a beautiful, moving, and heartbreaking romance.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Four Fiction Writing Prompts for Plot

If you’re currently working on a story outline, first draft, or even in revision mode, and are experiencing that dreaded plot drought, check out these four writing prompts. I hope they inspire you to shake up your story a bit and keep on writing.

Introduce a new character
If you’re a bit tired of exploring the stories, conflicts, and moral dilemmas of your current characters, why not introduce a new villain or unsung hero? This might help alter a plot point that needs some revitalizing.

Put your character in a new world
Get your character out of their comfort zone and immerse them in foreign experiences and obstacles. This could be as major as another spiritual world or as simple as relocating to another town, city, or country.

Create the ultimate competition
Have two characters fight over a coveted prize, whether it’s something tangible like land or abstract like vengeance. Who is fighting and what are they fighting for? What’s at stake in this competition? What can be gained or lost?

Initiate a disaster
Inflict a disaster for the characters in your story. Have them face a town flood, a murder in the family, a mysterious illness that has killed thousands…
When you create disaster, your character must go through psychological stages including fear, anger, and acceptance. This is a great prompt for both thickening your plot and for exploring the internal mind of your character and how they react to disaster and tragedy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Writer's Mind

We are all busy. Sometimes, even the thought of devoting a few minutes a day to meditate seems far from reality. There’s so much going on in our daily lives, that we risk losing a deeper connection with ourselves. As writers, we are constantly creating, re-creating, thinking, re-thinking, writing, re-writing…

Sometimes, we may feel so disconnected from our minds and bodies that our work may suffer. I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Marshall Flaherty, a Toronto-based poet who leads poetry sweatshops and writing-as-a-spiritual-practice workshops. Read more to learn about her insight on mindful writing!

Thank you so much for being with us today, Katie! I have some questions for you…

Why did you begin the Writing From Within Workshops?

I began the Writing from Within Workshops because I found that having prompts, such as reading a poem, listening to music, smelling cinnamon, meditating on the breath, or recalling a childhood snapshot brought incredible images to mind. And I found that if we just wrote without editing, just let the words flow, and just entered the feelings that arouse with the prompt, that lovely poetry-from-within poured out.

Most participants were astounded at the beautiful images, words, and the deep emotions that came out. Often, a participant would read her own work aloud and say either, “I can't believe I wrote that!” or “This writing brings back such a flood of memories and sensations!” I began these sessions because I could see how therapeutic and affirming it was for people to realize their own writer within, their own inner poet.

What is involved in a typical workshop?

A typical workshop begins with an "emptying exercise" where the participants just write free-flow, beginning with a statement such as "what keeps me up at night" or "before I forget" or "a list of things I need to put down". This exercise lets all the thoughts and concerns of the mind release, sets the mind free to write, and clears the path for writing.

Then we have prompts that often invoke the senses. I might have participants close their eyes while I bring lavender around for each to smell and then they write free-flow as soon as something comes to mind. Or, I might read a poem by Rumi and have them write a "river of words" as I read the poem, allowing some words to evoke others, and some perhaps to be recorded.

After each exercise, participants are invited to share a small gem from their writing, or the entire piece. The rest may comment constructively about what moved them from the writing, or what images were powerful, or how the writing made them feel. There is always one meditation as a prompt, as this allows things to come up from deep within. We end with a little forum on what contests, readings, events, or articles are out there for aspiring writers.

How can writers benefit from meditation and breathing techniques?

Meditation connects us with our true self, with the divine light within, with our inner artist. When we centre the mind and relax, subconscious truths emerge, images appear, memories surface, feelings can bubble up. The breath is the way to bring us to a relaxed state, to calm the body, and still the mind-- the breath, as Ghandi said, is our best friend. By attending to the breath, we leave the clutter of the world behind, and we can enter into that mystical place of creativity.

What are some things writers can do to approach their writing with more clarity?

- Read, read, read! Let your mind marinate with other writers’ words and images.
- Keep a notebook with you at all times to record any and every thought.
- Keep a notebook by your bed for dream fragments that stay upon rising.
- Practice attending to the breath before writing.
- Create puzzles, prompts, and exercises for yourself to surprise your inner artist.
- Practice describing a smell, sound, taste, feeling, sight, and seeing where it leads.
- Listen to music.

What are your favourite tips on achieving a mind/body connection for the busy writer?

Learn to do a body scan, where you can go through the body asking each part to relax. Learn to find a breathing practice that calms the mind (witnessing the breath, alternate nostril breathing, counting four in and four out, or having a mantra such as breathe in/breathe out or hum/sa or one/breath for each inhalation/exhalation). Massage your own temples as you breathe, letting your mind relax as your face does. Practice a few yoga poses, concentrating on integrating the breath with the pose.

Katie has two sessions in Meditation and Mindfulness and two sessions in Writing from Within on Saturdays at St. Michael’s College Continuing Ed at U of T this 2012/13 year. For class details, email Katie!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Revising Your Manuscript: Tips From Author, Susin Nielsen

Television writer and novelist, Susin Nielsen, is the author of Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom. Her latest book, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, published by Tundra Books, is a young adult novel about a thirteen-year-old boy who comes to terms with the horrible crime his older brother committed.

I was intrigued by the concept of this novel, as it is darker than Susin’s past work, but I also wanted to discover more about her editing process.

In this interview, Susin shares some of her revision tips.

In your new book, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, you use the strategy of journal writing to help with the narrative and character development. How did you incorporate Henry’s voice in the journals? What kinds of changes did you notice in the journals in comparison to the reality around Henry?

It wasn't a matter of incorporating Henry's voice into the journal, as his voice really is the journal ... I guess I felt that the only way Henry would ever share his story would be slowly, under a bit of pressure, hence the journal as suggested by his therapist.

In my first two novels, I also use first-person narrative, but they are not journals, and what I found intriguing (and occasionally frustrating!) in this case was that it really was a different kettle of fish, using a journal structure. I couldn't write things as they were happening; they had to have happened, in order for Henry to write about them, if that makes sense. It made plotting and pacing a unique challenge.

Do you have a particular revision process or did you find it different to edit The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen?

I do quite a lot of revisions before the manuscript ever gets sent to the publisher (Tundra). My husband reads the ms, my agent, and usually a good writer friend of mine. In this case, because I was nervous about the balance of tragedy coupled with humour, I also gave it to a local young adult book club, run by a fabulous woman named Christianne Hayward, to get feedback from her young readers. I actually love the re-writing process; it's much easier to work on something that is already there, than staring at the blank page. 

How much time did you spend on this manuscript in the revision process? Did it change drastically from the first draft?

It's hard to calculate the time, but I did a fair amount of revisions. They were probably smaller things until it went to Tundra, at which point I got what are known as "substantive' comments from my editor, and at that point, I would say I did change the manuscript quite a bit, though I wouldn't say drastically. I think the biggest changes I made were: 1) Henry stopped talking to his therapist - that was how I had written the first draft, and 2) I really brought his therapist, Cecil, to life. He had been almost nonexistent earlier.

How do you deal with cutting scenes out that you have grown attached to, even though you know your book doesn’t need them?

I've been writing for a long time (TV for years, books more recently), so I'm actually quite good at being ruthless. Kill your babies, as they say. If it isn't working, if it's slowing the pace, I chuck it, and it usually feels great, like a weight lifted off my shoulders! 

Do you follow any worthwhile bits of advice when it comes to revising your work?

I read my manuscript aloud. It takes longer, but I do it quite seriously, and it's amazing how that helps. It really points out the spots where the story is lagging. 

Do you have any advice you can share with new writers who have completed their first draft and are about to begin revising?

Be ruthless. Try to get trusted friends/family members to read and critique, and don't get defensive when they give you their honest feedback. You can choose to take it or leave it - not all comments are helpful or worthwhile.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen hits bookstores this month! To read more about Susin and her work, click here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Questions I Ask My Middle Grade Character

I’m one of those people that saved all my journals. My earliest entry was written at the age of seven, when I wished for someone from the Babysitters Club to babysit me and signed off the entry with “From your friend Lorna. Also I want a dog that can talk and I will keep it in my room but it can play outside too. I just do not want anyone to know my SECRET.”

I consider myself lucky that I have kept these journals, because whenever I’m creating a new middle grade character, I refer to my junior high entries I like to call The Wonder Years. It’s been a while since I’ve been in middle school, so these entries really take me back.

However, if you haven’t kept your journals and you need a refresher as to what a middle grader thinks about, these are the questions I always ask my characters to get me started on writing their profiles.

1.     What do you look like?
2.     What does your voice sound like? What kind of language/catchphrases do you use?
3.     Where do you come from?
4.     Who are your parents? What is your family life like?
5.     Who is your best friend? What does friendship mean to you?
6.     What do you daydream about?
7.     What do you want to be when you grow up?
8.     What do you love most about school? What do you dislike most about school?
9.     What is the best thing that can happen to you right now? What is the worst thing that can happen to you right now?
10.  If you could have anything in the world, what would it be? 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Festival Writing

If you have ever wanted to share your story with a live audience, read this interview with the extremely talented, Tracey Erin Smith, as she shares her insight!

Hello, Tracey! Great to have you here again. Let’s chat about all things festival…

From writing a one-woman show to having two shows in this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival, you have undoubtedly, mastered writing for public consumption. If someone is interested in writing a festival show, where should they begin?

Begin with what you are passionate about.  What is driving you right now? What question can you not get out of your head?  What’s the story burning inside you, needing to be told?  What are you fascinated with?  What’s driving you crazy?  Or causing you pain?  Or makes you explode with joy?  Start from what’s alive in you and write.  That’s where you begin.

In one of your festival shows, snug harbor, you write about losing your father to suicide. How can writers take something so personal and express that story to connect with the public?

When you are dealing with material that’s personal, you can do two things: number one, write it all down.  Capture all of your feelings about situation, about the people involved.  Write down scenes that happened or that you wish had happened or fear might happen.   Let it rip.  You have nothing to lose at this stage.  When you let yourself rant, you get at the real stuff, how you’re really feeling, the things you really want to say.   You may surprise yourself, and that’s good.   And this can be very cathartic for your audience. 

The second thing is to make sure you’re working with a therapist so you have a place to process your feelings.  It’s important to only do personal material on stage that you have worked through in your emotional life.  You need to keep yourself and the audience safe.   And finally, find creative ways to share things that are painful.  I tell the story of losing my father by using the structure of the hero’s journey. 

Other ideas: Use humour, say things that are hard to say through a character, other than yourself.  Look at incorporating different art forms and mediums into your storytelling, such as dance, poetry, singing, performance, and visual art. Sometimes, the hardest things are said best without words. It is my experience that when a writer speaks their truth, the audience is changed by this.  And you will see a lot of heads nodding in agreement, because we all know when we hear the truth.

When writing a show that will be part of a festival, what should writers be conscious of?

The key at the beginning is to write the show you want to write.  It may start in a festival but it could go on to be a main stage show or an indie hit or something you’ve never even thought of…like a TV series or comic book! 
So, write the show you want to write and then once it’s written, that’s when you think about the fact that you are in a festival.  That you are one of a hundred and fifty shows! 

Then…look at the show you wrote and find a sexy media hook.  Something that grabs their attention and gets your show noticed. 

For example, my first show, The Burning Bush, was about a woman studying to be a Rabbi who gets kicked out of Rabbinical school and falls in with some exotic dancers, who teach her how to strip.  For the Fringe production, we emphasized the stripping and Rabbi angle and our catch phrase to promote the show was: 

“The Burning Bush!  The World’s first Stripping Rabbi.
Saving Souls, One Lap Dance at a time.”

Look at your show and pull out the sexiest, funniest, most risqué or controversial elements and create a catch phrase or sound bite.  You want something short, snappy, and memorable.  In festivals like The Fringe, anything goes.

What are some differences in writing a festival show as opposed to any other writing you have done?

One difference is there are usually length specifications for your show.  I’ve done a festival where my piece could not be more than 12 minutes long.  With most Fringes, you can apply for a 60-minute or 90-minute time slot, but some will cap you at 45 minutes or less.  Then you have to be able to say what you want to say in a pre-determined amount of time. 

Festivals are a great chance to try out anything new or crazy or on the edge.  People are more willing to take a risk when choosing a show to see.  The tickets are only ten dollars and people are open to seeing something a little more experimental.  It’s a feeling that’s in the air.  So this is the place to go for it!

How can writers use tools and resources to promote their festival show(s)?

Use the tools that you are most comfortable with: Facebook, Twitter, your blog, website, email lists, trailers, and video blogs or interviews.  And most important, reach out personally to the group(s) you feel will be most interested and invested in your show.  Start there, with people who have been touched by what you are talking about. 

SOULO is a show where three gay men tell their amazing personal stories, so I went to the gay community first and then got us into the Pride Parade as a float!  Then we widened the reach because their life stories, struggles, and triumphs are universal, so it’s really a show for everyone.  But start with who your show will appeal to the most.  And go meet them in person! 

Happy Festival-ing Everyone!

Written by Tracey Erin Smith and directed by Anita La Selva, snug harbor, is a site-specific show that is presented as if the audience are members of a “Survivors of Suicide Support Group” and in this meeting of the group, we hear Tracey’s story of losing her father and how she re-found hope to carry on.

SOULO is a magical soul-circus featuring three Queer identified men sharing their personal stories of love, loss, and how cross-dressing save lives.

For a full listing of Tracey’s festival show times and dates, click here!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

10 Quotes on Writing

Every once in a while, we need a pick-me-up to continue writing. Here are some of my favourite inspirational nuggets. Print them out, tape them to your wall, and refer to them whenever you need some guidance and self-discipline.

"Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
Mark Twain

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
Sylvia Plath

"Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good."  
William Faulkner

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."
Stephen King

"I have to write the story I want to write. I never wrote them with a focus group of 8-year-olds in mind. I have to continue telling the story the way I want to tell it."
JK Rowling

"You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up."
Margaret Atwood

"The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe."
Gustave Flaubert

"I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it."
Ernest Hemingway

"Authors with a mortgage never get writer's block."
Mavis Cheek

"My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying."
Anton Chekhov

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Apps for Writers

Story Tracker

This is a submission tool for writers, that allows you to keep track of what you submitted and where. If you’re a freelancer, this is a great tool when you’re juggling several stories and articles. It also stores details and guidelines for markets accepting submissions, including magazines, journals, book publishers, and websites. With Story Tracker, you can also view the total income earned for each story, add details for each submission, and even highlight upcoming deadlines. There is a FREE version that allows you to store up to five stories, and the full version is $7.99.


Evernote is an easy, free app that helps you organize and remember your ideas across all your devices. You can take notes, create to-do lists, and record voice reminders. As a TechCrunch award winner, Evernote also allows you to save, sync, and share files and keep your finances in order by saving receipts, bills, and contracts.

Chapters—Notebooks for Writing

Chapters lets you create and manage multiple notebooks such as personal journals, travel logs, and brainstorming chapters. It also has a password-protection option, and lets you create PDFs. It’s pretty much a note-taking program that keeps several documents organized…and it only costs $3.99.

iA Writer

Designed for both iPhones and iPads, iA Writer allows you to put your thoughts into text without distractions…no spelling checkers, no auto-correction, no toolbars. These features are only revealed when you need them. This app also has iCloud and Dropbox integration…all for $0.99.

If you come across any helpful apps for writing and organizing, please share your findings!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Art and Story

I first met Jo Swartz, who writes and illustrates as littlejo, at a writers’ meet-up in Toronto. I was instantly drawn to her vibrant personality and imagination and child-like wonder of the world around her. And then I saw her art and was even more impressed. For a while, I’ve been thinking about how illustrators create stories through images, and more specifically, what the process is like for a writer/illustrator. So, I decided to connect with littlejo and learn more about her process!

Hi, Jo and thanks for taking the time to chat today! Let’s get started!

Thank you for asking, Lorna! I am excited about this.

As an illustrator, where do you get inspiration to let your imagination run wild and create your art?

Everywhere!  I would say I have a passion for learning. Everything I learn seems to lead me someplace interesting and inspiring. I also just let myself wander…I trust that I will be well guided to things that will be useful in a number of ways for my life and work. I am amazed at how God leads me to the most amazing things. I am very spiritual and trust completely in the process.

Describe your illustrating process.

I sometimes just doodle ideas. No fixed plan to them. These sometimes quickly inspire me to something more. A story develops. The characters seem to want to tell me their story….more pictures, a story, and characters come from that.

If the story comes first, then it can take me longer to find the ‘key’ to illustrating it. My work tends to have strong high-concept formats to the illustration. This is when wandering can help. Eventually, I am led to the ideal format for the illustration, usually creating a few tryouts I am not happy with in the process but each one having a bit of what ends up in the final.

For the work itself, I start with rough sketches, and if I like the concept that comes from that, I will create finer line art. I then colour in and add shading. I do it all digitally now. I used to use a lot of tracing paper and a light table to create the final art, which I then coloured in with watercolour or inks (Pebeo inks are my favourite). It was messy, time-consuming, and costly. I can draw directly on the screen of my new computer – which is just like using paper and very natural feeling. It saves me a lot of time and I am no longer wearing pencil smudge on my nose and arms.

You are currently writing the script for your graphic novel, Paris Ballad. How did you approach illustrating the graphics? Was there a storyboard involved?

This story started off as a few random illustrations that quickly wanted to be more. I tried to make it just a picture book of 32 images, but it would not allow itself to be so confined. It seemed to desperately want to be a graphic novel, which I was terrified to do – having never done one, and frankly, I haven’t read many either as most were geared to men.

It took me two years to finally begin what I wanted to do very much – I could tell something was there— I just didn’t know what. It began as a silent graphic novel. So originally, no script was planned.

I created the first chapter of 32 pages completely wordless…I wanted it to be about pure emotion.  The actual final art was more or less the storyboard cleaned up. I drew the story, much the same way one would write. Instead of word by word, it was frame by frame.

Going forward, I will be planning it a bit more. Now that I have decided to add words and am writing the script to it, I have a much clearer idea of what is happening in each frame in advance.

While working on Paris Ballad, how do you ensure cohesion between story and graphics? Did you make notes within your storyboard? Was there an outline of the script before even drawing anything?

After creating the first chapter in images, which I liked very much and felt confident in, I began to create a full outline for the story to ensure I did indeed have a novel here, and so that I could begin to submit it to agents. The outline further encouraged me. It flowed well, and I knew I had an exciting and original story there.

There were some details in there, but I like to leave room for inspiration in the moment. So that, as I am working on it, whether the script or the art, the magic is still there for me and things are still being revealed. I am using the outline, which was originally created for a silent graphic novel, to create the script.

The outline has proven to be valuable for me in ensuring the story stays on course, but magic is still happening to keep me excited about the journey.  I still have the art to do for the other 21 chapters. I expect it to be a little over 300 pages when done.  I make some notes, though I mostly clip images that inspire me, and file them in categories – people, places, etc.  I will be creating the art based on a full-written script, which of course I can still edit as I create the art to ensure that it conveys the feeling I want.

Do you often work solo? What are your thoughts on collaborating with a writer while you do the illustrations?

I have only worked solo for my books. I love the collaborative process though. I have taken classic tales and done my own spin on them, so I am sure I would enjoy doing that with a modern work as well.

I think that even better ideas can be developed when you work with another person, brainstorming etc. When it works well, it isn’t about compromise – but unity – which only comes from connecting with another. Sometimes two heads are better than one. It needs to be the right person with the same kind of trust in the process and no ego!

Do you have any advice for budding illustrators?

Be observant. Practice and perfect your art as much as possible. Be free, try new styles, new subjects, new formats. Remember to play. Stay a child – always amazed at the universe, and always discovering something incredible.  Allow inspiration to take you on the journey as opposed to directing the muse towards what you think will be easy or commercial. (It rarely is the apparently easy road, that actually is, and riches found there are more like fool’s gold than the good stuff.) Take risks. Go where you are afraid to creatively. 

Now, none of that advice will make you money necessarily, but it will make you happy with yourself and your work. You will never feel boxed in. You will always be challenged and growing. Beyond that, get the tools that work best for you. There is nothing like having the right tools.