Hand-lettering 2: This time, with a brush!

A couple weeks ago (ish) I gave hand-lettering a try for the first time. Loyal and devoted readers (which I assume is all of you) will recall that I found it surprisingly difficult and was unsure that I would pursue it further. But it occurred to me – maybe it would be easier with paint?

LDRs, (loyal devoted readers, pass it on) will also recall that I am a big fan of Amy Tangerine, an artist who shares her work and skill via YouTube. Amy has a brush-lettering series, so I picked a few videos to try out.

Based off my previous experience, I was prepared for this to be difficult, and I ran into issues almost immediately. For one thing, it’s been a long time since I pulled out my watercolors, so I needed to use a lot more water than I expected to get an even brush stroke.

You can see where the brush clumps and skips from the dryness.

Then I overcompensated and added too much water, which diluted the color and spread the paint out so much that you couldn’t even tell which letter was which anymore. I scrapped that attempt and started over.

I also had to try out several different brushes before I found one that had enough length in the tip to create nice strokes while at the same time being short enough for me to control. I can’t really tell properly from the video, but I think the brush I use has a shorter tip than the one Amy uses.

As I suspected, I did find it easier than my previous attempt with markers, but I still had trouble with the upstrokes. Although it’s easier to get a thin line on the first attempt, if you try to go over it to get a better color saturation you end up making the line too thick.

Once again, I found caps easier than lowercase letters.
You see that capital N? The upstroke on the end was much thinner when I did it the first time, but it was too light and when I went over it I ruined it. Womp womp.

One thing I really like about Amy is that she encourages you to take your cue from your own natural handwriting, and that changed my approach to the process from last time. Instead of trying to copy her exactly, I made some adjustments in the style and I think that’s part of why I found this easier.

I think I might actually do this again! It was fun and I do think I improved more than I did the first time, probably because I’d had that previous practice.

Which do you prefer, hand-lettering with markers or brush-lettering with paint?

A beginner dives into hand-lettering

If you’re involved with the planner/bullet journal community at all, you’ve probably seen countless examples of hand-lettering using Tombow markers or other tools.

And if you’re anything like me, you’re obsessed.

This week I decided to continue arting by trying out hand-lettering, something I’ve always been curious about. I quite like my handwriting as it is, but when it comes to headers my go-to is caps. Sometimes I alternate caps and lowercase letters for (what I think is) a cute, quirky effect, but otherwise I’ve very limited in terms of variety. I thought hand lettering would shake things up for me a bit.

Some quick YouTube searching led me to this introductory video by freelance graphic designer Will Paterson.

This, I figured, would be ideal for me, because while I do not have any expensive Tombow markers (nor do I intend to purchase any in the near future; you’ll see why in a second), I do have cheapy Crayola markers. Mine aren’t exactly the kind Paterson has (his are short and fat, mine are short and skinny) but the basic premise is the same. I pulled out some colors and dove in.

Then I hit the bottom of the hand-lettering pool with a resounding thud.

Guys. Guys. This is much, much harder than it looks. Paterson gets into this a little the video, but it really does require a lot more dexterity and physical control than I anticipated. In particular, I found it very challenging to get real definition between the upstrokes and downstrokes. Particularly with letters like m and n, where there are repeated up and down patterns, it’s really hard to get any distinction between the ups and downs.

(Apologies for my terrible photography skills.)

You can see me struggling to create proper upstrokes and downstrokes here.
Trying out the alphabet and continuing to struggle…

It’s also an incredibly slow process because you really have to think about how you’re holding the pen, what angle the tip is at, how much pressure you need to apply to get it right; so many things that you don’t see at all when you watch people do this on YouTube.

I did find uppercase letters marginally easier to do than lowercase letters. I think possibly the increased space makes it easier to have that room to move the marker to the correct position for a different stroke.

You can see I’m doing a little better here.

I do think it got a little easier just in the hour and a half I spent practicing, but I honestly don’t know that I’m going to pursue this again. It’s a lot of work for a payoff that I’m not particularly invested in because as I said, I do like my handwriting as it is. I do think it’s a good exercise for anyone pursuing art more generally, because it really does promote control and deliberation in the creative process.

Has anyone tried hand-lettering before? What’s your advice for those looking to perfect it?

Going to back to the basic basics: Illustration using shapes

Hobbies are an odd thing. They straddle the line between “things I do for fun” and “things I take seriously” to create an awkward, noncommittal space wherein one’s approach to said hobby can vary widely.

By which I mean to say, what?

No sorry, that’s Bertie Wooster. What I mean to say is that it has been a long while since I did any art. Since I arted, if you will. Finding myself aching for the feel of smooth sketch paper beneath my forearm and the weight of a colored pencil in my hand, I dug out my long dormant supplies and…

Paused.

It’s hard to find art tutorials on YouTube that don’t assume a much higher level of expertise than I currently possess. Plus they go too fast. So I opened a new tab and turned to Skillshare, an online learning platform, and found a class even I couldn’t mess up.

The class is called Start with a Shape – An Illustration Challenge, and is taught by Amarilys Henderson, an illustrator and painter based in Minnesota.

Essentially what Henderson teaches you is how to start with a basic shape and use it as a launching pad to make something more complex. She uses watercolors in the class, but I used color pencils and was very happy with the results.

First, I started with a triangle and made this weirdo (please excuse my poor photography skills):

What is it? Is it a gnome? A Borrower? An off-brand leprechaun? The point is that it has a triangle for a hat.

Then I did a circle and made this cactus, because cacti are in this season.

This I’m actually quite proud of. Not that I’m not proud of gnomey up there. But this in particular turned out better than I expected.

I also used a triangle to make a butterfly, and a circle to make a flower. I haven’t tried my hand at squares yet, but I have (awkward, noncommittal) plans to.

I have a premium Skillshare account because I teach classes there myself, but if you don’t have an account you can use this (affiliate) link to get two free months to try your hand at this class or any other.

What should I try my hand at next?

 

 

Writing: Why you gotta go and make it so complicated?

A few weeks (or has it been months? Who knows! Time is relative) ago, I joined Pinterest as a way of sparking some visual creativity, which some of you may know I’ve always been a fan of. And Pinterest did not disappoint:

It’s beautiful!!! *heart eyes*

(While we’re here, you can check out the Creative Quibble Pinterest Board here, and also check out this board if you’re only really here for the books).

But one thing I’ve noticed that I’m not so crazy about is the plethora of writing advice infographics along the lines of “Words to Use Instead of X.”

Before I start talking about why I don’t like this and don’t think it’s helpful, let me say that this isn’t a criticism of those dispensing this kind of writing advice, or even the advice itself. It’s not bad or wrong – I’ve personally found it useful in certain circumstances – but I think for aspiring writers to get the most of it, there needs to be a very specific approach.

When 1+1=3

Writing isn’t a science where you can replace one thing with its equivalent and get the same result. When you tell someone to use “enraged” instead of “very angry,” you could be legitimately improving their writing – or you could be ruining their work. The only way you can know for sure is if you see the word choice in the context of the piece itself.

Remember the scene in Friends where Joey tries to write Monica and Chandler a recommendation for their adoption agency but gets a little overenthusiastic with this thesaurus feature?

That’s basically what you risk when you follow this kind of advice willy nilly.

For example, one of these posts suggests “deafening” as a replacement for “very noisy.” But these two are not necessarily the same thing. What about “piercing”? It may well be a better replacement for the meaning you’re trying to convey. What about “cacophonous”? Riotous? Clamorous? Ear-popping? And that’s just off the top of my head. All of these words mean “very noisy.” None of them refer to the same kind of noise.

Another post gives 50 alternatives to the phrase “looks like,” including “mirrors,” “reflects,” “parodies,” “mimics,” and “parallels.” Personally I prefer this kind of post because it gives the writer a chance to consider what works best for their meaning, but that still requires one to be very familiar with the language and confident in what they want to portray.  If you’re in that category, then you may well find these posts exceedingly helpful. But if you’re just starting to get comfortable with writing, I think you need to approach this type of advice carefully.

I think the best, most authentic writing comes from where you are naturally in your vocabulary and your environment. When I was in grad school, I had several people tell me that my writing wasn’t “academic” enough, because I tended to use short sentences and paragraphs and everyday language. That was a direct result of my training in journalism – it was what I was reading and writing naturally, and so it carried over into my graduate work. I rather liked it – I find a lot of academic writing cumbersome to the point of being unintelligible. Here’s a pro-tip: if you’ve hit line four but you’re still in the same sentence, stop and find somewhere to put a period. No one knows what you’re talking about anymore.

But I digress. My point is this: I could have tried to mimic the academic style I was told to by my peers (for the record, my professors never took issue with my writing style), but it would have come off as awkward and artless. Writing is not a “fake it till you make it” skill. It’s something that needs time to develop naturally, and it’s also unique in that to perfect your writing, you need to do something else – read.

Reading is the only way to grow your vocabulary in a way that will organically feed into your writing. That’s the long and short of it. You can save all these posts and bookmark thesaurus.com and read the dictionary every night before you go to bed, but none of that will feed into your writing like reading does.

And speaking of reading…

Just say it!

One thing that really, really bugs me is when people give you a list of words to replace “said.” Guys. Guys. You do not need to replace “said.” In some cases, when you’re trying to really emphasize an attitude or a characteristic, it is appropriate to use “stammered,” or “demanded,” or “snapped.” In most cases, “said” is just fine. In fact, it’s better than fine.

Here’s why: your reader isn’t actually seeing the word “said.” That’s not how the brain works. It doesn’t read every individual letter or word. Instead, your brain scans and absorbs a context, and fills out the details from there. Have you ever been reading a page and suddenly stop and go, ‘wait, what,?” because what’s happening now doesn’t make sense with what you just read. So you go back, only to discover that you missed a crucial “not” in a sentence in the last scene, which is why the what happened afterwards was such a shock.

It’s not because you’re skimming or falling asleep or otherwise not paying attention. That’s just how your brain reads. When your brain sees quotation marks in the context of a story, it knows that there’s dialogue coming up, i.e., someone is saying something. It doesn’t need to read the word “said” to know that, so more often than not, it doesn’t.

So as a reader, you’re not registering the word “said,” and you’re certainly not nitpicking the author’s use of it. But of course as a writer, it’s a different ball game entirely. Because you’re typing it out so much, you become paranoid about your use of “said.” Is it boring? Is it evocative of what you’re really trying to express? You have an image in your head of exactly what your characters are doing and thinking and feeling; is “said” really doing them justice?

Yes. Yes it is. Don’t just take it from me. Author and publisher Rob Hart is a huge proponent of “said”:

Said and asked are beautiful in their simplicity. They are completely anonymous words. We know what they mean. We’ve seen them so often that our eyes recognize the shape and convey the meaning with zero effort. We glide right over them.

That’s very important when you’re reading dialogue. Dialogue flows. Conversations don’t stop so we can figure out what people are feeling. We intuit it. And having these nearly-meaningless words to steer you along means that you’re not pausing to figure anything out.

But when you see that a character retorted or blustered or hissed, your brain slows down. There’s something there you need to process. It’s momentary, probably imperceptible, but when it comes to writing a flowing conversation, the pause may as well last for hours.

In writing, everything counts. Where you put your periods. The white space between the paragraph breaks. Everything. And said and asked are very valuable tools in your arsenal. Because they get the job done and get the fuck out of the way. They’re so good at it, they can completely disappear when you need them to.

Hart makes an important point about the anonymity of “said” and “asked.” When you write, you’re trying to convey a certain idea or image, and often you become so invested in that image that you become obsessed with making sure the reader sees it exactly as you do in their mind’s eyes. So you use these unnecessary words and add emphasis where you don’t need it because you’re trying to force the reader to conform to your vision of the narrative, and instead you push them out of their reading bubble and force them to recall this outside force, you, the author, that has created this imaginary world.

They were immersed in your world. Then you dragged them out and beat them over the head with your complicated dialogue tags.

Sometimes, it’s better to just go with your instincts and not overthink these things. You can always go back and edit. And when you do, you may find that your work is in better shape than you thought!

*Feature image credit: John Davey via Flickr.

How to handle your inner critic

It’s December. You spent a whole month slaving away on a manuscript that you’re passionate about, that you love, that you can’t wait to get out to the world…up until you start rereading it.

In writing, as with any profession, it’s important to be able to accept criticism of your work and use it to your benefit. Editing is crucial part of the writing process, after all, and to do that you have to be able to approach your work with a critical eye. It’s admirable, healthy even, to be approach your work with the intention of improving it.

What’s not healthy is that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re work is terrible and you’re terrible and you should just bury yourself neck deep in the woods somewhere as penance. We call it the inner critic, but that’s really misleading. A critic evaluates. This little dude is just cruel. And more often than not, he’s a liar too, because burying yourself in the woods never solves anything.

That voice (James Chartrand at “The Write Life” refers to it as the inner demon) is essentially the manifestations of our insecurities. When we allow that voice to be takeover the megaphone in our mind, so to speak, it warps the way we see ourselves and our work. When we think negative thoughts, we feel badly, and when we feel that way, it becomes the lens through which we perceive ourselves. Work that we loved two days ago seems ridiculous. Language that was poetic last week becomes pretentious and cheesy.

How to handle your inner critic when it's at its most obnoxious

When you start to hear and recognize that demonic voice (because sometimes we don’t recognize it until it’s been talking for a while), you have to nip it in the bud right then and there. Once you’ve been able to do that, revisit the positive thoughts feelings you had when you were working on the piece earlier. If you liked it last week, it can’t possibly be utter garbage today. Try to move away from the piece emotionally and view it in a more objective way, so that if you do find that there are areas that need improvement, you’re at least not taking that on as reflection of your own self-worth or your skill as a creative actor.

This is also true if you’re getting back comments from an editor or a beta reader. Just because they don’t like parts of your piece, doesn’t mean that the whole thing is terrible or that you are terrible. Even if they hate the whole thing, that’s okay too. Not everything is going to be a home run every time, and not everyone is going to like every thing you do. How many people tore into the “Twilight” series as everything that’s wrong with modern fantasy fiction? And yet the series was wildly successful, and Stephanie Meyers herself is living the high life – she’s written more books that have been able to piggyback off of “Twilight’s” success, and now she has her own film production company.

Clearly, the negative opinions of others do not necessarily equal failure. So why should your own opinions hold any more weight? Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true.

If you find that you are simply too invested in the piece and it’s really wearing on you emotionally, put it aside. There’s no law that says you have to publish something withing 20 days of writing it. Leave it alone for a couple months, and then come back to it. Not only will probably be able to edit it better, you won’t feel like your personal integrity is attached to it – which, you know, it’s really not.

What advice do you have for dealing with the demonic voice in your mind? Share below!

No character? No problem! Four tips to writing great characters

Everyone’s got that thing about writing that drives them up the wall. For me, it’s the plot: I can write dialogue and character descriptions all day long, as long as none of them have to actually do anything. This, as you can imagine, is a problem.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about the other problem: you have a riveting plot riddled with characters that move through it like zombies on a full stomach.

Yes, Ben, that's our topic of the day!
Yes, Ben, that’s our topic of the day!

The truth is, there is no plot without characters. People can sit around doing nothing, but things cannot happen without people to do them. So if characters have been a pain for you, you’re in luck because I’m here to help!

Character Tip 1: Plan it out

In “How to Write and Sell Your Novel,” thriller writer R. Karl Largent says that before he begins writing, he creates distinct personalities and background stories for each of his characters. Even the most minor characters who only appear in a single scene get this treatment (although if you ask me, that’s overkill. Then again, what do I know? I’m not the bestselling author here.).

As I’m creating the character profile, I make a point not to rely to heavily on character tropes, especially those that I believe to be either harmful or unrealistic. (“Magical minority,” “evil for the heck of it,” and “Mr. Angst” are a few of the ones that really make me cringe.) Creating the profile also helps you track the character’s behavior, so that you can be sure that your character acts in a manner that makes sense within the universe you’ve created. If you’re not feeling very inspired or feel like you can’t get away from predictable tropes, try scrolling through illustrations and artwork on Tumblr. There are some very talented artists out there, and being able to picture a character in your mind’s eye can help you figure out how they act and react, how they speak, their mannerisms – all those little things that take a character and turn them into a person.

Character Tip 2: Make them matter to each other

To put it simply: if the characters in your story don’t care about each other, why should your reader care about them?

In my experience, the best novels have stories that create and build strong relationships between the characters. It’s why the death of Fred at the end of the “Harry Potter” series is so devastating: not only have we as readers grown to love him, but we know that he has family and friends who love him and will grieve for him in the world of the story. It’s why we care about the fate of Fix-It Felix when he goes looking for Ralph – even though the two are set up as antagonists, they have a relationship that is integral to the story. It makes sense that Felix would look for Ralph, and because Felix is invested, so are we.

Damn straight. I'm still salty about this, okay?
Damn straight. I’m still salty about this, okay?

As writer Chuck Wendig puts it:

Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds.

Character Tip 3: The more things seem to change…

After you’ve built a character profile based on Tip 1, you have to figure out how that profile is going to change by the end of your novel. Because if your character stays the same from the beginning of the book to the end, why’d you write the thing in the first place?

Writer Brian Klems gives a detailed breakdown of how to make your character grow and change throughout your novel, but to break it down: the plot has to have a significant, noticeable, and logical impact on your characters. Harry Potter goes from sweet, naive little boy, to angry, hot-headed teenager, to focused, strategic, slightly older teenager over the course of seven years, in response to the twists and turns of the plot. It makes sense because his growth follows the patterns of the plot itself. In the same way, your characters have to respond to the plot in ways that make sense given the character profile you’ve created.

Character Tip 4: Everyone is special in his or her own way

It’s a lesson we learned from that lovable purple dinosaur and it’s just as applicable to fictional characters as it is to real people. Your character can’t just be good at something, they have to be the best. This is a piece of advice that comes from story consultant James Bonnet, who writes, “Great stories, myths and legends are dominated by quintessential elements. Zeus is the most powerful god. Helen of Troy is the most beautiful woman. Achilles is the greatest warrior. King Arthur is the most chivalrous king.” The quintessential makes for a more interesting story, Bonnet insists.

He goes on to add:

The quintessential can be applied to any element of your story but is especially effective when applied to the professions and dominant traits of your characters. If you take these dimensions to the quintessential, you will make your characters more intriguing. They will make an important psychological connection and that will add significantly to the power of your work.

I know, I know: didn’t I just say that I hate tropes? And isn’t the quintessential character practically the definition of a trope?

Yes and no. Yes, the idea of the chosen one, the strongest villain, the strongest superhero, the superbly intelligent detective, are all examples of tried and tested tropes. But the trope itself isn’t necessarily bad; after all, it became a trope for a reason. It’s how you apply the trope that matters. The Chosen One has to face some kind of moral dilemma that calls into question his status. The super-smart detective has to stumble on a case, start to worry that she’s losing her edge, before finally solving it. That’s how you keep your character, and by extension, your story, interesting and unpredictable.

Learning to draw with Graham Shaw

I’ve always wanted to have some kind of artistic talent. When I was 15, I enrolled in art classes run by an extremely talented and patient man, who taught me sketching and oil painting. There was only so much he could do for me, though, and the end result was that I dropped the art classes at the end of the summer to focus on schoolwork.

Some dreams never die, though, and so I was really excited when I saw this video on the TEDTalks YouTube channel. It’s called “Why People Think They Can’t Draw” by Graham Shaw. In it, he advances an interesting premise: that anyone can learn to draw in a few easy steps.

When I watched the video I was a little skeptical, but I went ahead and gave it a shot. The style Shaw demonstrates here is very caricature-ish, but the technique does work. I made the whole gang, including the unnamed bald guy.  Exhibit A:

Featuring Thelma, Pam, and Jeff. Spike and Bald Guy not pictured.
Featuring Thelma, Pam, and Jeff. Spike and Bald Guy not pictured.

So can anyone draw this way? Well, given my utter lack of talent, I’m going to go ahead and say yes. The downside is that it’s a bit limiting in terms of style – if this kind of design isn’t really your thing, you might not be very interested in pursuing it. Also, you’re only getting profiles of the characters you’re drawing. But the video did inspire me in one way: Shaw’s whole technique is based on making small elements that build on each other. That can’t be too hard, right?

That process produced Exhibit B:

I added a few more details, including ears and a light sketch of the bridge of her nose.
I added a few more details, including ears and a light sketch of the bridge of her nose.

This was a really fun experiment to do and I think it’s a great way to approach the creative process, whether you’re using that process to produce art or anything else where you’re not sure where to start or how to get the result you want. You’re not going to be producing Mona Lisa-style portraits, but you can create simple cartoons to use in your business or for your own personal amusement. With a little practice, I think Lizzy and I could become very good friends.

Like this post? Come back on Tuesday for more cool stuff!