A Comic Book about the Artist’s Mindset

brick by brick cover

Creating is hard.  So is trudging through the Sahara without a canteen. If you’re in need of a cool drink, pick up a copy of Cartoonist Stephen McCranie’s book, Brick by Brick: Principles for Achieving Artistic Mastery.

Beautiful and wise, Brick by Brick has taught me about the creative mindset in a way few other books have. It’s packed full of insight and whimsical artwork drawn in soft shades of peach, brown, and aqua.

The title comes from the idea that a tower is built one brick at a time. “That means your measure for success is not how tall your tower is, but whether or not you’ve laid your bricks for the day” (p. 16).

In the introduction, McCranie says the comic essays stemmed from what he’d learned in his first two years as a professional cartoonist. He realized his experience might help other artists, but rather than tell artists how to create, this would be a “book about how to be a creator.” More than a “how to” manual, it’s a “how to be” book.

The comic format, a harmony of illustration and prose, grabs me in a way other books on the creative process have not. It’s written with honesty about his own failures, his struggles with self-doubt, and the principles that got him on the right track.

With a hearty dash of humor (I love his “deadlinosaurus rex”), he warns us to set realistic goals, break them down into small steps, and plan “backwards so you can live forwards” (p. 29). He offers tips to improve your craft and stay motivated while avoiding potholes along the journey.

The most helpful chapter for me (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is “You Are Not Your Art” – a pep talk for anyone who has invested too much of their identity in their creative pursuit.

“Hug the Elephant” is an insightful peek into the nature of beauty. “Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect” explores how to improve your skill by studying the experts in your field, and he gives tips to learn through imitation.

Other section titles include:

  • “Turn Your Pain into Plans”
  • “Planning for the Possible”
  • “Two Fallacies to Watch Out For”
  • “Taste is your Teacher”
  • “Be Friends with Failure”
  • “Know Your Artistic Lineage”
  • “Diversify Your Study”
  • “Get Stuff Done”
  • “Fun Gets Done”
  • “Divide and Conquer”

When I flip the last page of the “Conclusion,” my vision is sharper, and I’m motivated to follow McCranie’s advice: “Go outside and look for dragons.” Creatives of all types will find Brick by Brick amusing and inspiring.

Writers, artists, dreamers, read this book. It’s nothing short of powerful. You can buy it on Amazon or on McCranie’s website doodlealley.com where you’ll find more resources and see a sample of his drawing style.

Update: Yesterday, I received a copy of McCranie’s newest book, Space Boy. If it’s half as honest and uplifting as Brick by Brick, it will be well worth the read.

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Details, Details…Mining Your Life for Ideas

 

close up portrait of cat yawning
Me, with a new idea. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Ah, there’s nothing like being infatuated with a new story idea.

I’m over-the-moon excited when a fresh tale is brewing in my mind, because this one will be the best ever!  I’m prone to rush headlong into my manuscript, hitting the juicy highlights of the narrative. But the devil is in the details…

The Problem of Weak Writing

“Details.” That’s what my literature professor said I lacked when I (tearfully) asked her why I couldn’t earn more than a B on my papers. What I thought were precise essays were actually vague. And boring.

The fix? Brainstorming. For the next essay, I chose my topic, then I made a list of all the relevant ideas I could think of before I sat down to write. The result? An A. 

Details — especially those involving the senses — breathe life into a story and cast a spell of verisimilitude that pulls in the reader: The hour-glass birthmark on your antagonist’s forehead. The leaning tower of books in the den and the frayed fabric on the easy chair. The way your protagonist’s mouth quivers before she answers her opponent.

Without them, characters are lackluster, rooms are empty, and plot holes abound.

How can you imagine all those necessary details?

Draw from everyday experiences. 

Even mundane items — small things — can lead to big developments. For example, simple clues — a ladybug tattoo, a missing key, a white pill — may identify the murderer in a who-done-it.

I like to carry a notepad in my pocket as I go through my day and jot down my observations, or record them in a voice memo on my phone.

Here are a few little details I noted while doing my morning chores. I may use them in my new masterpiece novella:

  • Outside my kitchen window, the yellow faces of sunflowers swayed in the wind.
  • Bacon popped in the microwave, and the aroma filled the room.
  • I accidentally hit the lever on the mixer while it was in the up position. The paddle spun at high speed and slung muffin batter all over the kitchen — and me.
  • Upside-down bats lined the wooden frame over the barn door.

I might use the mixer episode in a humorous scene as my protagonist tries to impress a potential love interest who works as a chef. Or the image of the bats would enhance a gloomy, suspenseful atmosphere in a mystery. You get the idea.

Natalie Goldberg says this in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:

“Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else….Using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.”

How do you mine your everyday life for ideas? Let me know in the comments.

Information Gluttony and Lack of Creativity Go Together

Recently, I’ve been struggling to write. I had the seed of a story that wouldn’t sprout. I brainstormed and jotted down some notes, but in the end, my setting was boring, my characters were clichéd, and my premise was just dumb.

I was stuck.

So I did what I usually do when I need inspiration: I scoured the web. I turned to my favorite writing blogs and podcasts — rich sources of encouragement and instruction over the last five years. I watched videos. I opened the newsletter emails I subscribe to. I pulled out my favorite books on crafting fiction and ordered new ones.

The muse was silent.

I doubled my efforts. Every spare minute, I read another article or listened to more of my favorite writing podcasts until I was steeped in information, as if I expected to fix my writing by osmosis.

But my mind was waterlogged by other writers’ advice. I was inadvertently drowning out my own voice.

Don’t misunderstand me: it’s helpful to draw from the well of others’ experiences; we all need teachers. I’m grateful for authors and editors who share their knowledge. What would I have done without them?

But if we rely too heavily on outside sources, if we never trust our own instincts, we may become stunted.

“We are most original when we are most ourselves.” Rebecca McClanahan

It’s harder to be myself when various voices are shouting the rules in my head — when I’ve consumed too much advice, too many rules, too many instructions.

At some point, I must stop procrastinating because I have enough information. I HAVE ENOUGH.

For me, creativity blooms with white space. Mental white space. So instead of taking in another brilliant podcast about plotting, I should take a walk instead. Or sit on the rock in front of my pond and let my imagination wonder.20150908_231813959_iOS

Even bite-size tweets and Pinterest memes add clutter to my mind like salty French fries add pounds. Too many articles and blog posts and podcasts lead to information gluttony. The resulting bloat doesn’t feed my creativity. It stifles it.

I need a mental environment where creativity can grow. Here are a few things that seem to help:

  • Information fasting. Limiting outside voices (podcasts, emails, blogs, articles, news).
  • “Brain-dumping” on 750words.com. When problems mount and anxiety overwhelms, it’s hard to concentrate. Pouring out my worries (often as prayers) helps unload these burdens.
  • Stay home. Take on fewer activities. Accept fewer invitations. Run fewer errands. Stilling my body stills my mind.
  • Solitude. This might mean waking early before anyone else (sometimes insomnia is a good thing). Or taking a long walk, which, yes, is not being still, but it feels like “cleansing movement.”
  • Knitting.More cleansing movement. When my hands are busy, my mind can rest.
  • Focusing on small things.

Nigel sitting up (Daniel's)

Like watching my tuxedo cat bathe himself. Nigel licks his paw and draws it over his face starting at his eyes, reaching further with each stroke until he has cleaned behind his ears. His sandpaper-tongue catches my skin as he considers my hand an extension of his body.

Focusing on one small action is the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s a luxury. It calms and clears the mind.

 

Photo by Daniel McLendon

I hope these practical suggestions will help someone else, too. In the last week I’ve realized how much my mindset also smothers my creativity, but that’s a post for another day.

 

Tips for Fast Writing

In my last post, I talked about my dream of writing a novel and the greatest challenge I faced: finding the time to do it. To calculate how long it would take me, I used the equation

Story = Speed x Time.

I figured that if I wrote 500 words in an hour each day, it would take 160 days. But Time is only one variable in the equation—Speed is the other.dripping faucet

Five hundred words per hour is a lot for this tortoise writer. I deliberate over every word, then second-guess, strike out, and rewrite. (While I’ve been working on this post, I’ve deleted my beginning at least four times!) On some days, words drip one at a time, like a slow leak.

Speed is not about “fast and furious” writing that lacks cohesion, logic, and emotional impact. It’s about flow. A steady stream of words that spring up from a well of abundant ideas.

flowing water

Finding the Flow

1. Prepare by brainstorming.

This fills the well. I think about plot, characters, and setting details in advance. Since my time is short, I usually hatch ideas while doing other things. (Most of my thoughts for this blog post came while I was driving, fixing sandwiches, and doing laundry.) I like to collect my ideas in a Word document separated by category using the “Headings” feature. The categories I use are Plot, Characters, Setting, Themes, Dialogue, and Humor.

2. Work from an outline.

Ugh! The pantser in me doesn’t want to plan. I want my fingers to dance unshackled across the keyboard as they serve the whims of inspiration.

A Pantser’s definition of outline

[out-lahyn]    1. an unnecessary restraint designed to crush your imagination and suck all life from your story.

Example of outline used in a sentence: “The editor’s eyes gleamed with evil pleasure as he said, “Your story lacks consistency because you did not use an outline.”

Outlining is akin to eating your vegetables before you get dessert. It helps if you have cheese sauce to pour over your broccoli, and the sauce that makes outlining palatable is to think of it as drawing—like an artist would sketch a figure before painting. (That’s not quite a mixed metaphor, is it?) It’s a part of the creative process. And an outline need not be detailed. A broad brush will do. One or two sentences per scene.

I’ll be honest. I usually write out a rough outline for my story, but then I change it as I go. I don’t believe I’ve ever stuck with an outline. Still, the outline helps me write faster because I’m not stalled by indecision, and I avoid tangential rabbit holes that make no sense for the story.

3. Free write.

This is the opposite of outlining–not so helpful for plotting, but very useful for overcoming blocks, laziness, and bumps in your story. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Write as fast as you can without stopping to edit. Write anything. Write nonsense. Be repetitive. Free writing obeys no rules. It breaks the inner editor’s suffocating grip and liberates you to write whatever comes to mind without worrying about grammar, spelling, or diction. You can do this in a document or try 750words.com. The site provides a free, private, blank page for daily writing. When you reach your word count for the day, it congratulates you. It even tracks your progress for the month.

4. Walk.

Something about the blood pulsing through my body jumpstarts my brain. If I’m perplexed about how to continue with plot or dialogue, fifteen minutes of walking usually gives me a solution. And moving to music, especially soundtracks such as this one from Home Fires, revs up my imagination.

5. Take a nap.

This might seem counterproductive, but it saves time in the long run. My output slows to a trickle when I’m tired or drowsy. After a short snooze, I’m twice as productive.

A Word about Dictation

Though I have not successfully used dictation, other writers claim it has accelerated their writing process. Author Joanna Penn talks about it here. My own attempts have been frustrating. I tried to dictate into a Word document using my smartphone, but I have to press the little microphone tab every thirty seconds or so. Mostly I produced gobbledygook.

I may purchase a recording device and some transcription software. If anyone has experience with this, I’d love to hear from you before I make that investment. Also, do you have any tricks for writing faster? Have you done the math? How many words per hour (wph) can you write?