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Walls

Recent political talk of a border wall has me thinking about walls in general.

cottageMy primary experience of walls comes from years of living and working in buildings composed of walls supporting a roof. Houses and apartments buildings, schools and offices, mainly.

I’m in favor of the sort of wall that protects me from the elements. Residing in Minnesota, there are periods during the year when the cold climate alone is enough to kill an unprotected person. Walls can hold in enough man-made warmth to help us all survive the winter. It’s more about keeping that precious warmth in than keeping anything out – but the walls also keep out the wind and snow, the rain and hail – and block the sun during the stifling heat waves of summer.

There aren’t a lot of wolves, bears or cougars wandering around my part of the world these days, but walls would exclude these predators too.

There are human predators as well, but humans are often clever enough to find their way past the walls that would stop a wolf or bear, and I’d personally recommend social solutions to social problems that lead some people to prey on others. (Another topic for another time.)

There’s a lot to be said for walls. Walls and a roof allow me to keep my precious books and papers dry. They give me a quiet refuge from the noisy traffic of the streets, a place to sleep where I won’t be disturbed by passing strangers – or predatory ones.

Walls in this sense are all about choices. What do we choose to keep close, to protect and harbor? What do we choose to exclude? And why?

Different spaces serve different purposes. A home is a space to harbor family and pets; many people open their homes to friends as well, at least from time to time. Some say ‘drop in any time – and mean it. Others plan the occasions. Some people take in boarders, some are more reclusive. Apartment buildings and hotels offer more or less temporary refuges to larger numbers of people than a single-family home could accommodate.

Church-clipart-graphics-images-sharefaith-2Charitable groups offer sheltering walls to those who can’t provide housing for themselves. More charitable societies embrace the cause of making sure shelter exists in quantity adequate to the need, for those who can pay compensation and for those who can’t.

We build walls to shelter our domestic livestock: barns for cows and horses, sheds for chickens and sheep and goats, nurseries and greenhouses to shelter plants. We build walls to protect our tools and machines: tool sheds and garages.

Some walls enclose business places: offices and factories that are dedicated to particular purposes and are open to the people who help fulfill those purposes while remaining closed to those who don’t.

We build walls to protect people, animals, objects and functions that we care about and that may be vulnerable to damage if left unprotected. We build walls because we care about the well-being of all these people, animals, objects and purposes. We build walls in the interests of caring for and protecting them. We build walls because we care.

There are public spaces like libraries and civic centers enclosed by walls, but open to the public – at least for certain hours and events. Market places, parks and streets are open spaces that serve the interest of a community by establishing venues where people of all sorts can come together to do business, interact, share common interests and travel from place to place.

It would be counter-productive to build a wall across a busy highway. But people do put up toll booths or border inspection posts. Walls and fences are also used to delineate the boundaries defined by legal and political interests.

great-wallWhen we attempt to shut some populations out of our public market places, what are we choosing? Do we imagine that one population includes only predators and criminals and so seek to exclude that element by excluding everyone else who bears some superficial characteristics in common with them? Do we see only competitors and rivals for our limited resources, and imagine that newcomers would have nothing to contribute? Are the available resources as limited as we might suppose? Are we excluding potential customers, helpers, friends, teachers, students, craftsmen or entertainers?

A border wall built for purposes of excluding one group of people from territory claimed by another group is a matter of political dispute – and if nothing else, a debatable use of the massive funds and resources it would take to build such a wall – especially considering how clever humans can be at circumventing walls. Might the energy and resources be better spent looking for ways to meet the needs of all concerned?

The Evolution of Naomi Stone’s Cover Art

What’s had me too busy to write a blog lately? As of January, I’ve requested and received rights reversion on all my titles published through Champagne Books and Kensington’s Lyrical Press. I regained my rights to the stories, but not any rights to the cover art the publishers had supplied.

That was okay by me. Those original covers might be of professional quality, but they lacked any cohesive, branded look – at least within a series, and most of them seemed too generic to give potential readers a real clue as to what to expect from the stories.

For instance, the cover of Spirited showed a blonde woman running in a night-time desert setting. Never mind that she showed a closer resemblance to one of the antagonists than to the heroine – there was nothing in the image to tell the reader that the hero of the story was a magical djinni – a feature that distinguishes this story from the majority of other urban fantasy/paranormal romances.

Spirited-CBG-sm

If a reader were actively looking for a romance featuring a djinni, there was nothing on that cover to let them know this book fit the bill.

The Team Guardian novellas involved members of a near future crime-fighting team composed of people with super human powers – yet nothing on the covers pointed to the presence of special powers, or the superhero nature of the characters. Some readers reported taking the covers as ordinary contemporary romances. I enjoy a good contemporary romance, but these are not that. Readers looking for contemporaries would have been disappointed; readers looking for superhero romances might not have guessed they’d find them behind these covers.

The novellas were all related, but their covers had no unified or cohesive look to them.

Wonder Guy’s original cover suggested a superhero – but missed the element of magic and the whimsical tone of the story that are among its key features.

In short, everything I’d had published needed new cover art.

Creating new cover art for the Team Guardian stories represented a challenge. My first thought was to go for a ‘comic book’ look. I started with Sweet Mercy. I liked the colors of the original cover a lot, though the character shown was presented as much more vampish than the story’s heroine – a yoga-practicing empath whose power to project serenity and compassion could tame evil doers.

My first attempt at a comic-book-style cover was too simplistic and for one critic too dark. The complaint was that it conveyed ‘horror’ or suspense more than romance.

I added a male companion beside the female caped hero, but the whole graphic style still seemed wrong.

SweetMercyEvolution

More feedback told me my next, more realistic effort looked ‘home made,’ too blurry, with unprofessional typography.

I tweaked the art, sighing at letting go of the ‘painterly’ background effect I liked that had come across as ‘blurry,’ going for a clear, night cityscape, and trying out several fonts for a combination that looked professional and could work across the set of three novellas. I finally came up with versions that fit the bill.

I had never liked the cover of the Team Guardian omnibus volume, featuring postage-stamp-sized versions of the three original covers slapped onto a plain black background. The one thing I did like about the cover was the addition of a logo for the Team.

Because of copyright issues, I came up with my own version of a team logo for the new covers and used it on each one to help tie the series together visually.

For the new omnibus cover, I borrowed a panel-effect from the comics genre, taking slices of art from each of the new covers for the novellas, and framing them against the night skyline of Minneapolis – the main setting of all the team’s adventures. I stuck with a modest Century Schoolbook font for the title and used the same cross-series font Naomi Stone now gets on all her covers.

TeamGuardian-evolution

Spirited was a stand-alone book (not to say there might not be followers to come). The story is rated ‘R’ and the hero is a powerful djinni – therefore a bare-chested djinni on the cover gives the potential readers some idea of what to expect. But the first attempt at a new cover got more negative than positive reactions on Netgalley – even from a reviewer who loved the story itself. Feedback was vague. The art was among the batch labeled ‘blurry:’ another of my attempts at a painterly effect that didn’t make the cut. For a revised version, I used hi-res source art and multiple layers of background effects to replace an overly abstract attempt at indicating time travel by a fade between a modern cityscape and an ancient desert. The new background emphasized the magical powers of the hero.

The font choice for the title was the one element I’d retained from the original cover. I now de-emphasized its drop shadow for a subtler effect and for author name chose a simple sans-serif font that could carry across my various series to bring uniformity in author branding.

I did some further tweaking after a few more comments and lengthened the djinni’s ‘tail’ of smoke and made the tagline text more legible.

SpiritedCoverEvolution

This brings us to the set of Fairy Godmothers’ Union stories. Wonder Guy is the only novel in the bunch (yet – I’ll tell you later about my plans for future books). Originally, Wonder Guy was published by Lyrical Press. I signed the contract over to Kensington Books when they acquired Lyrical as their digital-first imprint.

I liked the concept of showing a man as he transformed to a superhero – but not this man, who wore a business suit! Greg, the hero of the story, is a geeky grad student described as wearing t-shirts printed with physics or math-based jokes – something like you might see on The Big Bang Theory. And there was nothing tying this cover to its Fairy Godmothers’ Union series or suggesting the link between superhero powers and fairy godmother magic.

WonderGuy-CoverEvolution

During the brief period between Lyrical’s buy-out and my signing with Kensington, I designed my own version of the cover… though recently, I decided I wanted something that did even more to suggest the fantastical nature of the story.

ThreeWishesEvolution

Meanwhile, the Fairy Godmothers’ Union story collections needed a remake as well. The original covers were very abstract. At first I wanted to stay somewhat abstract. I thought close-ups of roses would suggest romance and sparkly light-effects would suggest magic, and I would frame the covers alike to tie the series together. I liked the effect well enough but got a lot of negative feedback on it, and I realized that they had a point about the typography being illegible at smaller sizes – and I realized that while the look might fit short story collections, it wouldn’t carry across to the novels I have in mind for future inclusion in the series.

Sigh for the roses – especially the large bunch of cream-colored blooms used for the cover of the brand new omnibus edition incorporating all the Fairy Godmothers’ Union stories to date.

I needed something that did more to convey modern fantasy fairy tales.
I did a lot of browsing of covers through Amazon’s Top 100 in related categories and got a good sense of what was selling. The new cover art for Granted Wishes is the result – and I just love it.

GrantedWishesCoverEvolution

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Long time, no see

It’s been much longer than I realized since I posted here. A lot has been happening. The politics of the wide world has been distracting. Life has been distracting.

In addition to the sad loss of Tigger, my companion for sixteen years, I suffered a few personal disappointments during the year.

I finally completed ‘Thanksgiving,’ (Yay!) the first novel of my Holiday Enchantment series and submitted it to Kensington Books according to the contract giving them the option on it. After long last they replied, reporting that they liked the series concept and the writing, but they declined the book because they have trouble selling ‘that kind of fantasy.’

Of course that left me wondering what the hell they meant by ‘that kind of fantasy.’ Okay; admittedly, it’s hard to classify. Not sexy enough to be a standard romance novel, too romantic to be an urban fantasy, too weird to be anything else. It wasn’t until my critique partners gave me feedback on the early chapters of the next book in the series that I was told I was writing Magical Realism. And even that didn’t seem quite right… more like Modern Fairy Tales. Or something in between.

So, disappointed, but undaunted, I spent the following months seeking more feedback from beta readers, revising and tweaking, and engaging in an extensive hunt for an agent, for this book and for a middle-grade fantasy called ‘The Winter Knife.’

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that agents are interested in books that are like other books that are known to sell well. It is therefore small wonder that very few of them showed an interest in either of my completed manuscripts. (Both are good stories, which have passed through the critique-partner and beta reader gauntlets and been honed and nicely polished, but neither is easy to classify.)

Again, undaunted, I launched one Kindle Scout campaign after another. While neither campaign succeeded in winning me a book contract, both taught me more and more about book promotion and marketing, and I went on to learn more from fellow authors with the Midwest Fiction Writers group and to study and learn even more about the burgeoning Indie Publishing movement. Even now, still undaunted, I am excited about launching both books in the coming year, and am busy writing a sequel to ‘The Winter Knife’ and learning about creating audio versions of all my stories.

2016 was wonderfully rewarding in a great many other ways! I:

  • completed my second year with G4S and won the support of fellow security officers to take on the role of union steward,
  • received the long-term loan of a ’98 Subaru from a friend who wasn’t using it – truly a fabulous boon when commuting by bus from the suburbs represented a daily and nightly challenge, and severely limited my ability to participate in social occasions with family and friends,
  • finished paying off a debt that had been eating huge holes in my paychecks – so now I’m able to pay for insurance and gas for the car,
  • enjoyed many gatherings during the year with my colleagues in MFW, friends who filk, and who join in singalongs, and play board games, and attend science fiction conventions,
  • attended MiniCon SF Convention in the spring, and DeCongestant in the fall,attended the wedding of my lovely niece, Julia to Andrew Zabel, celebrated (though unable to attend) the wedding of my dashing nephew, John to
    Jenal Lesh,
  • met my new grand-niece, Pippa, and grand-nephew Wren (Lawrence),
  • attended a workshop with best-selling author, Eloisa James,
  • enjoyed a wonderful gathering with family for Thanksgiving – thanks again to SIL, Mary for being the perfect hostess!
  • I revived an old interest in archery, (with as yet limited success),
  • passed a physical and got my shots (flu, pneumonia and Shingles),
  • adopted the rascally Rajesh, who has liberally strewn my apartment with shredded cardboard from his scratchy box,
  • contributed a short story that was published in the MFW Anthology: ‘Festivals of Love,’
    winterknifecover3-web
  • later published that story, ‘Faire Play,’ as a stand-alone title on Amazon,
  • updated the editions of my short story collections available on Amazon, and the short story co-written with Avon Impulse author, Lizbeth Selvig,
  • plan to offer FREE download versions of all of these before the end of the year – so tune in to my newsletter if you want to be notified! http://bit.ly/Naomi2hT6wu2
  • And, most recently, I was invited to read at the annual Rivendell Society reading event, where my latest story was received with gratifying laughs in all the right places.

And now ‘The Winter Knife’ is finally available on Amazon!

 

Art is a Mirror

This essay is part of a continuing meditation on meaning in the arts.

Everyone has seen photo-mosaics – and many have made them these days – those fascinating works in which hundreds of small images are arranged so that, when seen all together, they form another, conglomerate image. Hundreds of images of birds can combine into the image of another, larger bird. Hundreds of faces or figures can be combined to show almost anything.

In this same way, the arts are a mirror held up to humanity. All our works, taken together, combine to show us what and who we are. The more works we have, the higher the resolution of the resultant ‘image.’

We may not like or appreciate some part of what we are seeing. Some of the smaller, contributing tiles in the mosaic may seem dull or unappealing, or even displeasing. But imagine if we disliked the color gray and therefor removed all the gray tiles from a mosaic, leaving white plaster in their place – how the image would be distorted, blotched and speckled.

Who wants a mirror all blotched and speckled because we block out the parts of our own image we find displeasing? That is to say, every artist, every voice, has something to contribute to a larger truth and we are better off looking for where these contributions best fit than we are in denying them a place.

Why create works of art?

This essay is part of a continuing meditation on the meaning of the arts.

For my own part, many motivations join forces to move me to create.

In one sense, it seems an absolutely essential aspect of my identity as a human being. Making art is a continuation of the playful explorations of childhood by which we learn about our world, and ourselves, and our capabilities.

Such play is a process employed in building our maps of cognitive reality, in exercising and building intelligence through practical application of what our senses reveal in conjunction with what our social training requires.

Humans are wired to create works of art (visual, musical, visceral, muscular, gustatory, literary, and more) the way birds are wired to build nests. Some might argue that nests serve a more practical, observably useful purpose than do works of art.

That would depend on how much we value cognitive maps making sense of our complex world and how we value the kind of thinking that builds bridges between individuals and society, between the worlds of the senses and of objective rationality, the kind of thinking good at finding creative solutions to the plethora of problems we encounter while living in the material world.

So, one reason for making art is that I like to explore my sensory experiences in a playful way. Different artists, obviously, produce different work. Different media, different tools and materials, different circumstances can all lead the explorations of a single artist into new and different paths.

Put pen and ink in my hands and I’ll explore fine dark lines in relation to a blank page. I may explore them abstractly, looking for patterns inspired by the movement of my hands to music or in relation to a grid, or by combining variations on the theme of a single curve. Or I may explore in relation to what I see in the world around me, reproducing the curves of a face or a tree, a landscape or cityscape. Or I may explore what my imagination or dreams inspire: drawing a unicorn, mermaid or gryphon – as informed by reality, but not confined by it. My explorations may lead me to combine any number of these differing approaches.

Put crayons in my hands and I’ll explore the potential of bright colors and thick lines and the texture of the paper in conjunction with the waxy material. A light hand shows the texture of rough paper. A heavy hand emphasizes color over texture. Crayon resists watercolor, which will flow into the gaps the wax fails to cover… Again, I can explore abstractly, representationally, expressively, surreally or in any combination – but the results will look very different from those produced with other materials.

Similarly, explorations in three-dimensional media, or in computer-generated images will produce very different results according to the potential of their types.

Exploring across multiple media teaches me to look for and recognize the potential in a range of differing creative environments. Take away my pen, my pencils, my crayons, whatever tools I’ve been using – and I will still know how to approach turning whatever materials are at hand to creative ends.

In another sense, creative work is about power. The world is vast and complex and almost entirely beyond my power to affect. Almost. All but this one spot at the point of my pencil or pen or brush. All but this word, and the next one, and the next. I have the power to change just so much, and to share what I have done with – at least some of – the people around me and make it a part of their experience as well as mine. In turn, I can see and hear and feel the changes they make. Together we create a culture of shared experiences. We create civilization by sharing our creative experiences and our understandings in this way.

In that sense, creative work is about relationships. Art builds bridges between individuals and society. No two individuals see the world from the same position at the same time. If you want someone else to see things your way, you need to reproduce what you see in a form you can share. This has gotten a lot easier since the invention of photography, and even the best photograph loses something in translation.

The potential for seeing the world through the eyes of others – that’s huge. Like hearing the music born of another heart and recognizing one’s own passions there. We lead different lives, separate lives – as becomes only too clear in times of pain or suffering. However much we sympathize, we do not feel the same pain as the individual who has been injured or suffered a loss. You don’t feel my aching toes, courting frostbite as I walk home through sub-zero weather from a bus stop. I don’t feel your stubbed toe or mashed finger or your craving for that next cig or drink or whatever it is you may be craving.

But an evocative description or representation can remind me of my own pains and needs and I can understand that what you have experienced is similar enough to warrant my sympathy. The arts give us tools for recognizing the validity in one another’s individual experiences; they create a bridge between subjective experiences and objectively verifiable reality.

Art also builds bridges between the internal worlds of the senses and a more objective rationality. The left hand may not know what the right hand is doing. I may not know how to put what I’m feeling into terms that anyone else could understand, but an abstract expressionist painting could get the idea across, not only to others who might see it, but to my own distracted, abstracted conscious ego.

Different artistic approaches reach different audiences. No one work will reach everyone. The deaf will not appreciate your music. The blind will not appreciate any of my visual works or approaches. No one will relate to every possible work from every possible artist. Our choices, our differences in these ways help to define us as individuals and to define cultures and sub-cultures and fan groups and marketing niches. It’s all very frustrating and wonderful and confusing and amazing.

Valentine Gifts for Her*

*(a lot of this applies equally to gifts for guys, but I don’t want to be doubling up on my pronouns throughout.)

It’s the thought that counts. It’s lovely to receive a gift at all, knowing that someone thinks kindly of you.

Some gifts are general enough in nature that they’ll be appreciated by most** recipients: Flowers and fresh fruit – especially in the winter. Chocolates. Shiny objects.

These can be lovely gifts to let someone special know you want to please her – when you don’t actually know her well enough to have a more specific idea of her personal tastes.

If you know more about her, you can get more specific. She loves to read? but you don’t know her favorite authors or what books she already owns? – that’s what gift cards are for. Gift cards from book stores, music stores, art or craft or computer supply stores, garden stores, hardware stores, camera stores, gun shops or lumber yards… It’s amazing the variety of interests different individuals have.

The better you know someone, the more thoughtful your gifts can be. She’s been a fan of Randy Travis her whole life and he’ll be performing in town? Or maybe it’s the Grateful Dead or Weird Al Yankovich – whatever her tastes, those tickets will make a better gift than however many roses.

She’s a new writer eager to find her audience? Buy copies of her books, recommend them to people who will like them, write reviews and post them on Amazon and Goodreads – better than a string of pearls.

Or maybe she’s an aspiring astronomer who’d love a special lens for her telescope. A horsewoman who has a serviceable saddle but yearns for that high-end, hand-tooled Spanish leather version. A lifelong fan of Star Trek who’d go ape for a replica Klingon Bat’leth, a fan of Steampunk fiction with a yen to ride in a dirigible …

What are her areas of interest? What are the things she’s passionate about?

The most thoughtful gifts of all are the ones that demonstrate how you’re paying attention, how you recognize who she is, and care what matters most to her.

** Careful with consumables – some people have allergies or unexpected aversions, are on diets or medication. It’s best to find out what an individual actually prefers.

Magic and Money

I’ve published two volumes of short stories from the files of the Fairy Godmothers’Union, True Love Local and a full-length novel, ‘Wonder Guy,’ (Kensington’s Lyrical Press) in which his fairy godmother grants super powers to grad student Greg Roberts — just so he can impress the girl next door.

When I have the opportunity, I like to ask people what they would wish for from a fairy godmother. It shouldn’t surprise me that so many people mention the same things. High on the list is healing – whether for an ailment of one’s own or for loved ones suffering from cancer or other diseases.

Many people also wish for relief from difficult circumstances, and for peace, and protection for their families in an uncertain world.

I might have expected more people to wish for money, and am glad to see so many who think first of the more immediate, human needs that money only exists to serve.

Money often seems to be the real world’s substitute for fairy godmother magic. Money can make the difference between receiving vital medical treatment and medication – or not receiving them. Money can pay for a military, for guns and security systems. It can provide food to the hungry – if there’s someone around who has grown and harvested that food. It can pay for transportation to carry us half-way around the world to visit distant friends and family, it can provide housing and clothing and essential services and pure luxuries… all depending on and presupposing the caring, hard work and ingenuity of the people who produce the goods and who provide the services…

Money only seems like magic. The real magic is in the people, in us; the money is a symbol representing the value of what we can do to change the world.

Money can help with some difficulties, but it can’t return a loved one who has died. The laying on of currency won’t cure the common cold, let alone a cancer. Money can help pay for medical research because it helps support the people with the drive, intelligence and training to do that research. Money can help support the people who care enough to work with those who are stricken by accident or disease, but the magic is in those people who care and dedicate their lives to that work.

It’s when we start thinking about the things money can’t buy that we come close to understanding this true magic. If money were the most valuable thing, why would we spend so much of it trying to extend the life of a sick dog or cat that’s only bound to die eventually anyhow? Or heck, why spend it on anything that doesn’t add to the bottom line of our own finances? Why buy books or music, games or artwork, why spend money on any but the most utilitarian of clothing?

Clearly, people are only willing to part with money because there are things we value more: life and health and the safety and well-being of our loved ones, friends and communities – just to begin with. When basic needs are met, we value beauty and meaning and amusement. Books and stories are important to me because they remind me of just how much I value being involved with people – even imaginary people in imaginary worlds.