Thursday, August 25, 2022

Emily Listens to the Rolling Stone Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - Entries 11-20

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm on a quest to listen to as many of the Rolling Stone Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time as I can before I either get bored or die. If you want to follow along with my thoughts and comment yours, I welcome you! Here are the ground rules I'm following as I go through the list:


1) I have no intentions of completing this project and listening to all 500 albums. I'm a realist. And since life and time are short, I've started at the top of the list and am progressing downwards, so that I get what are ostensibly the "best" albums in first. That means overall, this listen should be worse than the last one. Whelp.


2) I'm not ranking them myself or giving them stars. I personally find these varied musical styles too hard to compare and really have no interest in debating the merits of Beyoncé vs the Beatles. Instead, this log is more of an exercise in music appreciation. I want to better understand the history of popular music and branch out from my normal listening patterns.


3) I know nothing about music and will not be held accountable for any of my terrible opinions. My aim is to generally seek for the positive in all my comments, though I will be honest if something doesn't resonate with me. I give you full permission to disagree, especially if you can see the good in something that I'm struggling with. Those are the comments I most want to hear.


4) While going through this list, there're going to be moments where controversial figures in music come up. Generally speaking, I'm not planning on speaking to a particular person's legacy or their behavior. Any issues I do bring up will probably only be in as much as they immediately relate to the music. This is because, frankly, I don't have the scope to comment on every arrest, allegation and charge brought against these artists. There are SO MANY and lots who people don't think of as "problematic" do, in fact, have credible allegations brought against them and darn it, I'm just not here to sift through it all. However, if something in one of their songs makes me uncomfortable, that's fair game. Something I firmly believe is that bad people are capable of making good art and good people are likewise capable of making bad art. Today, I'm mostly concerned with just the art. Whether or not you personally choose to engage with an artist's work due to their legacy or charges against them is up to you and completely valid.


Previous Entries:

Numbers 1-10


NOW ONTO THE NEXT LIST!



11) Revolver (The Beatles)

As I mentioned in my first post about these albums, while I consider myself very familiar with the Beatles discography, it's due to familiarity with their singles rather than their albums. Frequently, I'll know over half the songs on a Beatles album, but wouldn't have been able to tell you which Beatles album they came from. Such was the case with Revolver, which... well, having now listened to a grand total of two Beatles albums, this one isn't my favourite. Don't get me wrong! There are still good songs on it. In fact, my older sister's favourite Beatles song, Got to Get You Into My Life is here, along with other classics like Eleanor Rigby and Here, There and Everywhere. But there are also a number of songs on here I wouldn't consider the band's best. I honestly wonder what the criteria was for picking which Beatles album should go where on the list (you better believe there are a lot of them) but my kneejerk reaction is this one is ranked too high. I'm not the biggest fan of the Beatles' period where they borrowed heavily from Indian music. I usually hear those and find myself just wishing I was listening to actual Indian pop music. The discussion around what counts as cultural appropriation was obviously in a different place back in the Sixties, and I'm sure the Beatles never meant to grab ham-fistedly from a colonized culture but... that's kind of the whole thing about cultural appropriation, isn't it? There's a sense of "look how exotic this sounds!" with those songs that doesn't sit well with me. But like, Bollywood and Indian pop music? That stuff is great. Feels like a much more natural fusion. So yeah. The album as a whole didn't work for me, but there are some very VERY wonderful, classic songs here.


12) Thriller (Michael Jackson)

I mentioned during the Prince entry last time that growing up in the 90s, the 80s were seen as impossibly uncool. But there were some notable exceptions. Primary among them, Michael Jackson. If this was a list of the 500 coolest albums, rather than greatest, I honestly think this one would be #1. Thriller! Billie Jean! Beat it! The Girl is Mine! I listened to both this album and Revolver on the same day and... um... this album probably had the best content from Paul McCartney I listened to that day. (Okay, okay... SLIGHT exaggeration) There's something so delightful about both a Beatle and Vincent Price turning up on this album. Just goes to show how much power Michael Jackson had during the height of his fame. The first 70% or so of this album are straight fire. Seven of the album's nine tracks were released as singles and rightly so. The last 30% is less iconic, but still enjoyable music from the King of Pop. Altogether, an incredibly solid outing that absolutely earned its place so high on the list.


13) I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Aretha Franklin)

About a year after releasing the 500 Greatest Album list, Rolling Stone magazine attempted to rank the 500 greatest songs. This honestly strikes me as even more difficult and arbitrary than ranking albums. That being said, when they announced that their pick for the greatest song of all time was Respect as performed by Aretha Franklin, I was like, "yeah, I think we can all live with that." Going into this album, that was the only song I knew on it (most of her other big hits must be elsewhere) but GOSH DARN if this album wasn't consistent in quality from start to finish. Aretha Franklin's voice is so purposeful and powerful, it feels like every R&B singer since her is just chasing her. Years ago, Rolling Stone rated her the greatest singer of all time and listening to a full album of hers, their praise seems justified. Also, as a musical theatre nerd, I just want to shout out how clear and perfect her diction is. A lot of pop and rock singers loose their clarity, trying to add character to the way they sing. Aretha Franklin is simultaneously crystal clear and immeasurably expressive. The whole album flowed seamlessly along with her soulful voice, yet I still came out with a few new favourite tracks. My picks were Respect, (obviously),  Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, and the title track, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.


14) Exile on Main St. (The Rolling Stones)

I can totally picture this being somebody's favorite album ever. In fact, I picture it in great detail and this hypothetical person is definitely over 50 and rides a motorbike. I am neither of those things, but that's not to say I didn't appreciate this listen. Few of The Rolling Stones big singles are on here and instead, the focus is on rock music itself. There's a fun fusion of blues, honkey-tonk and hard rock going on with this album. Much like how the Beach Boys clearly created the blueprint for arthouse indie-rock, you can absolutely hear the roots of punk music in this album. The Rolling Stones were early experts at exploiting the rough, ragged edge of rock music. I'm not the biggest Rolling Stones fan, but at the same time, it's obvious many of the modern bands I LOVE would not have existed without them, so it's a strange one to review. I'm guessing if I had lived contemporaneous to the height of their output, I would have been a bigger fan, because I wouldn't be taking for granted all the rock bands and subgenres that came after them and iterated upon what they made. When I think of how slick and polished much of the rock music from the sixties and seventies sounded, The Rolling Stones would have felt like a breath of fresh air. As for standout tracks, even without knowing any of the songs before hand, I picked out the lead single, Tumbling Dice, without any difficulty. It was, frankly, one of the only songs that sounded like a single (big change from Michael Jackson!). My favorite song on first listen was probably Sweet Black Angel, but then I looked up the lyrics and LET ME TELL YOU! 

Hmmm. Okay, so this was an interesting lesson in values dissonance. For those not familiar with the song, it's written in AAVE and even features Mick Jagger using the "n word." It's not an unmotivated artistic choice, as the song is actually about the imprisonment of Angela Davis, a Black rights activist, during the early Seventies. So it's a protest song, and clearly trying to come from a place of allyship. I don't think you would see the same word/diction choices coming from a white writer today. I'm not sure if Mick Jagger is someone Black critics believe earned his "n word" privileges. I certainly can't say if he did. I mention it more so that if someone is going in for a listen, they know the content is there and are ready for it. Like I said, on first listen, the song just sounds very cool. And it was definitely trying to be on the side of Black rights. Was it successful? WHO AM I TO SAY????

I know this aside has already been super long, but I do think one of the interesting things about a tour through music like this is hitting some of these songs that clearly reflect the thoughts and values of a different place and time. And on the flip side, it's important to note that this "different time and place" shouldn't only be judged on the basis of what contemporary white audiences thought. It can be hard to ferret out intent vs impact and even harder to decide which of those matter more. And for those of us who weren't alive at the time, it can be even harder to understand how something was received during its own time, rather than how it would be now. (In a similar vein, I could write a whole essay on the perennial lightning rod song, Baby, It's Cold Outside) I'm genuinely curious what both contemporary and current perspectives from Black artists were with regards to Sweet Black Angel because I honestly don't know. 

Anyhow, that was some great motorcycle music that got very politically charged for a hot minute. Fascinating!


15) It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Public Enemy)

This album marks the first time something on this list was explicitly influenced by an album that came earlier. Obviously other projects have influenced each other, (hard to picture how rock ever would have made it to Nirvana without first passing through the Beatles, for instance), but what's different here is how Public Enemy freely compared their ambitions with this album to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. They wanted to create something with a similar streak of protest and racial consciousness for rap audiences. And overall, I would say they were successful. There are so many thoughtful tracks on here that handle issues ranging from violence and police presence in Black neighborhoods to the arcane laws of the music industry that tried to put an end to sampling. There's also a song that tells Black women to stop watching soap operas and start reading books instead, which, I dunno. I found that kind of hilarious. Let the record stand, that I am in favor of books OR soap operas, so long as your media brings you joy. Even if I too, am personally "Team Book." What I'm saying is NO ONE ASKED YOU, CHUCK D AND FLAVA FLAV!!!! Let a lady watch her soaps! 

The production on this album is loud and bombastic, something Public Enemy was aiming to increase in their work after they noticed how excited people got at their concerts. And I think the general loud, scrappy - sometimes even goofy - 80s instrumentation really suited the message of the album. Whereas Marvin Gaye asked the question What's Going On politely, Public Enemy have noticed that asking quietly has not yielded the results one might hope for. And so their message is loud, insistent and branded as "enemy" for no reason other than that it's loudly Black. There were some great songs on this, including Don't Believe the Hype, Louder than a Bomb, and Caught, Can we get a Witness? But if I had to pick a stand-out track, I would go with Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos which tells an absolutely gripping story of a prison riot. It's got the same story-telling quality of an old country murder ballad and the poetry is on point from start to finish. Overall, a fun listen that I would recommend to anyone feeling nostalgic for a good 80s record scratch effect.


16) London Calling (The Clash)

I've started looking at this list in units of 10 (since that's how long these posts are) and quite often each section of 10 has one album I've listened to before doing this challenge. AND GUESS WHAT! We reached this section's entry! Don't ask me why I prioritized The Clash over everything else here, but I went through a blip of intense interest in punk music during college and The Clash were the beneficiaries of it. That being said, unlike Fleetwood Mac, who I listened to constantly at one point, I barely remember this album beyond it's big hits. BUT WASN'T THIS FUN! I'm remembering now why I was drawn to The Clash as a youth. The wide array of stylistic borrowing they do on this album is so well done. I'm not sure why their use of reggae bothered me less than when the Beatles borrowed from Indian music - maybe because they explicitly mention the Rude Boys movement? I'm not sure, but the balance felt better. Or maybe it's because punk music mashed-up with reggae is just... interesting? Anyhow, Rudie Can't Fail was a great track. Later, hearing such thick British accents sing the Spanish lyrics on Spanish Bombs was super hilarious, so I was inclined to take the cultural borrowing less seriously. WHO KNOWS? I think one thing that surprised me was how much the album London Calling isn't about London. I always thought of The Clash as being very political within Britain, but hadn't realized how globally they were thinking in terms of their sound and activism. Overall, I really enjoyed this album. It hits that sweet spot of being something I can draw to, while also being rewarding on a closer listen, with more attention to the lyrics. For those who think of punk bands as the slobs who can only play a handful of basic chords, this is a great album to get a sense of how much variety can be packed into the scrappy sound of classic punk. Other stand-out tracks included the title track and Lost in the Supermarket. That last one in particular was a nice bit of suburban ennui to contrast some of the loftier ambitions of the rest of the album.


17) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West)

Kanye West is simultaneously one of the most well-loved and universally reviled artists working today. It fascinates me, because he's rarely had public opinion behind him on a personal level, even while most music critics hold him as one of the most important artists of the Twenty-First century. Putting full cards on the table, I come at Kanye knowing his biggest singles (which I generally like) but little else about his music. Anyway, all this is to say I really didn't know what to expect putting this album on and all I can say is that I never expected it to be THIS grandiose. I've mentioned before that the Rolling Stones magazine voting body clearly favors albums with complex production and GOOD GRIEF this album! Calling it a rap album almost feels misleading when there is just so much going on in every single track. Though Kanye is, of course, a great rapper. His flow is very expressive and I love how clearly he punctuates his rhymes so that you can catch the context behind his lyrics. That being said, aspects of this album weren't for me. Kanye is known for his very raw, personal, explicit lyrics and I'm honestly not interested in him as a person enough for all of that content to resonate with me. But when I just listened and vibed with the music, I REALLY liked it. I can definitely see why people get so excited about his work. One of the things that really shines on this album is his talent for choosing collaborators. It feels like everyone who was working in the music industry in 2010 made an appearance on this album and they're slotted in at just the right moment to make the sound bigger and better. Special shout out to Rhianna on All of the Lights, who really elevates that track. Also, someone needs to ask Bon Iver if he preferred working with Kanye or Taylor Swift because, frankly, the fact that he's worked with either of them is strange. Now knowing he's featured with both is downright mystifying. While I wouldn't say this whole album was for me lyrically, when it worked for me, did it ever. I loved Runaway and Lost in the World, which both made me very glad I listened all the way through to the end of this album.


18) Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

The last Bob Dylan album on this list honestly underwhelmed me, so I came into this one trepidatious. Was it a better experience than the previous one? Maybe? I think I liked this album a little more - the energy was a bit higher and more consistent throughout. It also just didn't feel as long and droning, which is interesting, because the closing track, Desolation Row, is over eleven minutes in itself. But I really liked that one. Dylan's poetry generally interested me more here. He's firmly in his "voice of a generation" phase and his songs touch on rebellion, the struggles of everyday Americans and the failure of the establishment to understand what's going on around them. Like A Rolling Stone is the album opener here and it sets the tone well. Also, I liked Dylan's singing more on this album than usual. I enjoy Dylan's stylizations generally, but it was cool hearing him try to hit some clearer notes as contrast to his usual gravel vocals. That bit of variation caught my ear and made the whole album more interesting to me. Aside from the songs already mentioned, Highway 61 Revisited was my other favourite track with it's really fun, unique imagery. I'm beginning to realize that Bob Dylan is an artist I can enjoy as a background element, or reading his poetry in an English class. But as a musician I get excited about? Well, there are better entries on this list for that.


19) To Pimp a Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)

So far, this was the hardest album to summarize my thoughts about. I struggled to even know how to start this entry, because filtering this album through my eyes just feels so... wrong. To Pimp a Butterfly is so clearly not about me - a white woman living in Canada who grew up with very limited access to African American music and culture. Honestly, I think my opinion of it is kind of irrelevant. But I also think this album is emblematic of why I started this project in the first place. I wanted to listen to music that was outside my experience and simply put, I'm very glad I did. To Pimp a Butterfly might be the most emotionally complex album on the list and I'm still processing everything Kendrick laid raw in this album.

At this point, it's pretty easy to draw a line connecting the themes of protest in Marvin Gaye, through Public Enemy and now on to Kendrick Lamar. (Side note: Kanye's work definitely touched on themes of Black identity and power, but they're much more explicit here. Still, I don't want to give the impression these themes didn't also matter to Kanye) And perhaps appropriately, Kendrick just sounds like he's been at this same fight for way too long. In addition to being a rallying cry for Black empowerment, To Pimp a Butterfly is also a harrowing look at mental health, working through addiction, discovering self-love and trying to find the will to go on in a country that seems to hate you. There's a repeated refrain that ends several of the tracks, growing more lines with each iteration, that highlights Kendrick's own battles with anger and depression. As new lines are added, the surrounding songs mirror the changing tone of the poetry, which was super cool to see. The passion and rage of King Kunta gradually morphs into the thoughtful reflections of How Much a Dollar Cost until building to the self-love anthem of I. All of these were standouts, but there are plenty of other great tracks on here. 

Musically, this album does a lot of genre blending, borrowing heavily from jazz, soul and funk. One thing I've really come to appreciate over this listening project is how incredibly collaborative rap music tends to be. Producers and guest artists clearly make valuable contributions and I think this album ends with one of the coolest samples ever - an interview with Tupac that Kendrick intercuts as if he were the one asking his long-time idol questions. Overall, it's a great listen. Though be warned, it can be emotionally rough at times. Kendrick doesn't pull his punches and he's rapping about some very sad things. Also, it feels like it should go without saying, but Kendrick is a phenomenal rapper. He varies his style and flow across each of his songs really well and is great at sliding into the right character or emotion for each track.

Also: Did you know that Kendrick's last name is Duckworth? Duckworth! That made me so happy. Other people probably already knew this, but in case you didn't, enjoy. What a great last name.


20) Kid A (Radiohead)

Hmmm.

Ahem...

It is time.

I hate Radiohead. Now in fairness, I do not hate every song they've written. Creep is okay. Exit Music for a Film is so good, I became very confused and thought I might like Radiohead, but then that song prompted me to listen to Radiohead and I was swiftly corrected. On the whole, I try to keep these write-ups positive. Much as I disliked Purple Rain during the Top Ten listen-through, I could see why people liked Prince (especially in the 1980s) and I can picture a hypothetical Prince fan. In truth, I can picture a hypothetical Radiohead fan too, and they look an awful lot like me. They are white, came of age in the 90s/2000s, approach music with a high level of nerdiness and are suckers for good instrumentation. That's the main thing I can give Radiohead - they write really cool, really intricate songs that make use of things like modal interchange, microtonality and odd time signatures. And when I focus on the accompaniment, I can actually really enjoy them. Truthfully, when I think of the people I know who love Radiohead, none of them have been vocalists, driven to the band instead based on instrumentation. So what I'm saying is maybe I don't hate Radiohead. Maybe I just hate Thom Yorke.

I honestly cannot think of a more well-known, successful singer who I like less than Thom Yorke. Did consonants kill his mother or something? Because he seems determined to avoid them at all cost. And yet, he also clearly has a hate on for most vowels too, because every word he "sings" is flattened to an indistinct shwa. I kid you not. I memorized the lyrics to every song on this album, and that's because every Radiohead song has the same lyrics and they are "EeeuuuuuOOooooaaaaeeeeUUuuuUUuuuu" repeated on loop until we all want to die. The cruelest part of this, is the guy has enough vocal control that it's obvious he COULD sing if he wanted to. Exit Music for a Film is Radiohead's best song largely because Thom woke up that day and decided he knew what articulation was and so when he gets to the end and harrowingly falsettos his way through "we hope that you choke" it's just as haunting as it's supposed to be because you can understand what he's saying. But that song isn't on this album! I mention it, because it serves as a nice counterpoint to what is going on here.

I know Thom is making a conscious choice with his voice, but it is a wrong choice. He chose violence. Radiohead is actually well known for their lyrics, but I never find myself looking them up because his gurgling, sludge-mouthed performance makes me completely uninterested in what he's saying. With many of the other artists on this list, I would put on their albums, listen to them as background music for a bit, then inevitably go, "hmmm, I think I missed something interesting there" and look up detailed lyrics because something about their performance piqued my curiosity. Thom Yorke never does that. His voice squishes around at the same, mopey emotional level too, so that everything has this blanket, unchanging air of ennui. This album has no range to it. No ups and down. Just one long, droning "OOOoooaaaaeeeEEEEUUUUeeeeUUUUeeaaaOOOUUUUEEEE MOrning Bellllllllll" That's the one phrase I distinctly picked out. He definitely said the words "Morning Bell." Good job, Thom.  

If you want a quick picture of how much I dislike Thom Yorke, I recommend listening to Idioteque, which was even more unlistenable than the rest of the album. Best track is the outro, Untitled, which has no lyrics. And if you just completely ignore Thom, there are some really cool instrumental bits in other songs scattered throughout.


Rapid Fire Summary

11) Not the Beatles's best, but c'mon. It's the Beatles.

12) Quintessential Michael Jackson makes me want to dance!

13) I wish I sang like Aretha Franklin.

14) Somewhere in the world, someone's dad is listening to the Rolling Stones.

15) Man, rap was fun in the Eighties! Fun ANGRY!

16) The Clash goes global and proves they know more than just scrappy guitars.

17) Kanye West uses every instrument and every musician ever and it... works?

18) Bob Dylan sure does Bob Dylan.

19) Wherever Kendrick Duckworth is right now, I hope he's having a nice day. He's earned it.

20) After this album ended, Do I Wanna Know by the Arctic Monkeys came on and I've never been more grateful for a palette cleanse in my life.


Thursday, July 14, 2022

Emily Listens to the Rolling Stone Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - Entries 1-10

Making comics, I spend a lot of time drawing. And if there's one thing I am always in search of, it's more music to listen to while drawing. Recently, I decided to go through the most recent iteration of Rolling Stone Magazine's Top 500 Greatest Albums of all Time. And I also figured I should record my thoughts on them!

Some caveats:
1) I have realistic expectations and do not plan on actually listening to all 500. That's why I started at number one and am working my way backwards. Because life is too short to count this list down. Rolling Stone will probably update the list again before I get anywhere near the end. I'm listening to their "top" albums first, so it's all downhill from here.

2) I'm not reviewing the entries with "stars" or ranking them against each other. Choosing a number 1 or 8 or 326 all feels rather arbitrary to me here. This list is drawing from a very wide range of musical tastes and I salute Rolling Stone for trying to even organize these entries against each other. Who am I to say how Joni Mitchell stacks up against Kendrick Lamar? Really, I just wanted an excuse to listen to some classic albums and make myself learn the context around some of the most famous songs of all time. I'm doing my best to appreciate each album on its own merits, rather than judge it against my taste, because...

3) As I listen to this list, I'm realizing I have terrible taste in music. I know nothing! I am a pleb! Take nothing I say seriously!

Okay, now that this is out of the way, here are the entries I listened to recently and my thoughts on them! 




1) What's Going On (Marvin Gaye)
This was just so very good and chill and thoughtful and I really liked it. I honestly didn't think I would recognize very many songs off of it, but a lot of the album was familiar. It flowed great, as is usually the case with concept albums. I do love a good concept album. There's something bittersweet about listening to this album 50 years after it came out and all the topical political commentary still being accurate and timely. Additionally, Marvin Gaye has such a good voice. When I think of soul music, I think of this sound. My favourite song was probably the title track, but the whole album was great. I can see why this ended up being the consensus choice for the Rolling Stone voters, because it's just so darn pleasant, but with enough depth to make you feel like you're doing something intelligent while listening to it. That's a hard balancing act. Is it really the greatest album of all time? Maybe. At the very least, it's an album I have a hard time picturing anyone disliking, which can't be said of some of the rest of the top ten, which are inherently more polarizing.

2) Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys)
I've always loved The Beach Boys and this is them at their weirdest and most experimental, which is great! I don't know if there is an instrument in existence Brian Wilson didn't shove onto this record. The orchestration is so strange, intricate and gorgeous, especially on the deep cuts. The singles are a bit more like the typical surf rock the band made in earlier days (Sloop John B is on this album) but one of the group's very best singles - God Only Knows - is also here and that one better reflects the general trippiness of Pet Sounds. Of the album only tracks, I really liked That's Not Me and I Just Wasn't Made For These Times. They had some surprising lyrical depth and reminded me of a lot of great indie pop of today. You can really see the roots that the indie rock scene has in Pet Sounds and I feel comfortable saying this album is just as influential and important as people make it out to be. Also, while lots of artists on this list are amazing at writing instrumentation, I don't think anyone ever beat the Beach Boys at vocal harmonies. The arrangements they come up with are just insanely complex, interesting and beautiful.

3) Blue (Joni Mitchell)
My main exposure to Joni Mitchell growing up is that one Christmas song she wrote and GUYS! That song is on here! Did it make me love Blue more? OF COURSE IT DID! CHRISTMAS!!!! In all seriousness, this was probably my favourite listen of the top ten, because I am a sucker for folksy rock. All the better if it's sung by a light, lilting soprano. I have serious vocal envy of Joni Mitchell. She's so clear and controlled up high. Fewer of the songs jumped out to me as stand-out singles. Aside from River, of course. She clearly should have mentioned Christmas more often. But that's not a knock against the album. Sonically, it's wonderfully cohesive, due to none of the songs being obtrusive, and that makes it great for vibing along to. I definitely want to give this one another listen soon. Her lyrics are wonderfully tender and poetic and I know I'll have more distinct favorites once I revisit the album.

4) Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder)
Stevie Wonder is an artist who I respect tremendously, even if he isn't always my cup of tea. Music aside, he's just such an excellent human being. Actually, listening to this I started to realize that one of the reasons Stevie Wonder isn't always my favourite musician is because he really does branch out stylistically all over the map. That being said, this album definitely shares a dominant sound and feel. One of the reoccurring themes in these top albums I've noticed is lush, complex orchestration and Stevie Wonder really shows off his chops here. Listening to the album all at once, Isn't She Lovely kind of shocked me with how charming it is. Like, I've heard it before, but it was somehow even better here. Also: I will never stop being surprised when someone fires up Pastime Paradise and I am forcibly reminded that it was sampled in Gangster Paradise. I forget! All the time! Those two were probably my favourite tracks here, though there are plenty of other stand-outs too.

5) Abbey Road (The Beatles)
THE BEATLES!!!! I mean, what is there to say? The Beatles are amazing and this album was too. This album felt almost like the inverse of Blue - every song was iconic and while they went well together, they also differed from each other a fair bit, making this album a less consistent experience than any of the others before it. Even Songs in the Key of Life had a permeating Stevie-ness about it. Maybe it's because this album came late in the Beatles career and all four of them were now competing for creative direction of the band that the songs all sound so different. Octopus's Garden is nothing like Because which is nothing like Here Comes the Sun which is nothing like Maxwell's Silver Hammer. I loved all of those, especially Because, but due to nostalgia, my favourite on the album was still Something. It's just one of the most romantic songs of all time.

6) Nevermind (Nirvana)
Full disclosure... I have always struggled with Nirvana. I'm not the biggest fan of shouty singing and Kurt Cobain is shouting in full fury here. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually DID enjoy the album. I think approaching it as a whole helped. Moving between Nirvana and other, more melodic bands on a mixed playlist always feels jarring to me, but here, it felt like I could enter Cobain's world and just hang out while his band performed. And my gosh, while I might not care much for Cobain as a singer, as a guitarist and composure he's incredible. His instrumentation choices are just so fascinating and surprising. (Side note: I know Cobain's vocal performance is intentional and he could sound "prettier" if he wanted to, and he clearly doesn't. Stylistically, I'll even grant it's the right choice. I just have a bias towards clear diction and musical theatre jazz hands. SUE ME!) Also, while I haven't always been the biggest Nirvana fan, I do like the Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl's drumming is top tier on this album. Sometimes I found myself just listening to that. Best song is Smells Like Teen Spirit, because I am basic and the intro drums are so cool. Shout out also to Breed, which I hadn't heard before doing this listen and really liked.

7) Rumors (Fleetwood Mac)
And here we reach the first album I actually owned/listened to in its entirety BEFORE doing this challenge. What can I say? I like folksy rock. I honestly have a hard time judging this one because I listened to it so many times while in high school. That opening track is very good for walking at a good clip and I have tons of memories of using it to walk to school quickly. The whole experience of listening to Rumors is rife with nostalgia. Still, that does mean that I love it. Some of the songs on this album are among my all time favs, including Dreams, Songbird and The Chain. Also, it's been a while since I listened to the whole album and I forgot how good Gold Dust Woman is. Really, the lesson from this is that Stevie Nicks is a legend and every one of her songs is staggeringly awesome. Some of the other tracks strike me as... less good? Or at the very least I have to be in the right mood for them. Like, Don't Stop can get kind of annoying in it's up tempo perkiness. Unless you're trying to walk to high school quickly, then it's perfect.

8) Purple Rain (Prince and the Revolution)
Going through the top ten, I was most nervous about the Nirvana and Stevie Wonder albums. I knew I didn't always vibe with their music and was worried I would sound like an ignorant toad talking about them. But both those artists pleasantly surprised me and I felt like I walked away with a better appreciation for them. All of this is to say that I was not prepared to be blindsided by Purple Rain, because I can now throw my arms wide and say with great confidence, "I DO NOT UNDERSTAND PRINCE!" I'm still a bit confused because up until this point, I had liked every Prince song I had heard. Now I'm realizing his album cuts and his singles aren't exactly the same thing. Going into this album, I loved both When Doves Cry and the title track and coming out... those are still my favorites! I also now have an active dislike for Darling Nikki. As for positives, I did enjoy a lot of the instrumental sections of the songs on Purple Rain and I wonder if I would prefer some of Princes' more instrument heavy albums. Also, while I eventually could get behind Kurt Cobain's screaming, Prince's generally pulled me out. As Prince himself asks, why DO we scream at each other? He poses the question, but I'm not sure he has the answer. In all fairness, I did enjoy the second half of the album more than the first and maybe that was me finally getting into the spirit of the synthesizers and big, bombastic 80s production. Growing up in the 90s, this was 100% the sound I pictured when I thought of 80s music and since it was the 90s, the 80s were impossibly uncool to me as a child. So maybe that's coloring my perception of this one too. Do I have any big Prince fans in my life? I would love to hear you talk about what you love about him, because he's clearly talented, even if he's making artistic choices I don't appreciate. Ugh, I feel so bad about this one. I did you dirty, Prince.

9) Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan is known for having dipped into multiple genres over the course of his career, yet I think if you were to average all of that out and distill it down to some "stereotypical Bob Dylan" sound, this album would pop out. I almost don't know how else to describe it. It's folksy, obviously. But beyond that, it's just so... Bob Dylan. Lots of long, rambling songs with simple chord patterns and lyrics that are hard to grab all of on a first listen. I probably spent more time googling lyrics for this album than any of the others. Appreciating Dylan is often more about appreciating poetry than it is about the full musical experience. And don't get me wrong, I like Dylan and I liked this album. But it felt like spoken word poetry undercut with guitar quite often, rather than something I would return to when I want MUSIC in my life. I'll be honest, I don't think this would have been my pick for Dylan's top album and looking at Rolling Stone's write up about it, I think the one reason this album edged out some of his others was because the voting body was real excited about his raw, emotional lyrics detailing the end of his marriage. And that's also probably why I didn't resonate as strongly with it. "Wow, I'm so sad my marriage is ending because I had an affair," is one of the great clichés of literary fiction and I make fun of it with my fellow writing friends quite often. Of course Dylan's version of the infidelity plot is a cut above the rest, but it's also just not a story I care a lot about particularly. You did this to yourself, my guy. Even so, this is Bob Dylan. He's going to get your feelings at least a couple times. Stand-out songs include You're Gonna Make me Lonesome When You Go and If You See Her, Say Hello.

10) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill)
I was super excited going into this album. I'm dismally undereducated in hip-hop and rap, so this being the highest ranking album from those genres perked my interest. I knew just one Lauryn Hill song - Doo Wop (That Thing) - but I really liked that song, so I came in with high hopes. On top of it, this album pops up all over the place when people talk about what they think are the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It's not just Rolling Stone going to bat for this one. And all I can say is... OH MY HECK THIS WAS WORTH THE HYPE!!!! Like, wow. I get it. I get why everyone is devastated Lauryn Hill never released a second album. This album was just so... so FUN. It's fun, it's smart, it's engaging. Lauryn's voice is gorgeous and gentle when she needs it to be and powerfully soaring when the mood calls for it. Songs like Zion made me tear up, but then she'll lay down something like Doo Wop and her rap will simultaneously feel so sharp and flow like water. She blends her styles perfectly. This album is also such an amazing genre mash-up. Like many of the other top 10 albums, Hill isn't afraid of using almost any instrument that speaks to her on a particular track. Whether it's a flute solo that would be at home on a modern Lizzo track or Carlos Santana accompanying her with some serious guitar riffs, there's a taste of everything on here. I loved feeling like each track had the potential to surprise me with her next creative choice. Like, I don't know what else to say. Talking a little about the lyrical content, I loved the diversity of topics Hill pulled from, yet they all fit together into a whole too. The album title is well chosen and Hill uses the voices of school children to reinforce her themes. This album is the story of a girl growing up and learning (often the hard way) about life and love. I also loved her pulls from religious imagery. Forgive Them Father probably had my favourite lyrical interplay, but I'm excited to listen again to this whole album and catch more gems. There's just so much in here. I can absolutely understand why she's been so deeply influential.

RAPID FIRE SUMMARY!
1) Wow, Marvin Gaye is so good. I can't imagine anyone disliking this.
2) The Beach Boys sure are fun when they take lots of drugs.
3) Joni Mitchell is like a warm cup of tea on a cold night
4) A smorgasbord of Stevie Wonder - very nostalgic, very fun
5) The Beatles compete with each other to write the best song and weirdly, George wins this round
6) Nirvana sounds better when you listen to nothing but Nirvana
7) Fleetwood Mac makes their personal lives falling apart sound awesome
8) STOP PRINCE! STOP! Doves are crying, you should stop.
9) Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, I guess.
10) Yes, Lauryn Hill is THAT good

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Top 10 Things That Helped Me Get an Agent

When I was a baby writer, starting off in the query trenches, back in 2014, I spent a lot of time reading HOW I GOT MY AGENT blog posts and dreamed about writing my own some day. In my imagination, that was going to be in the not-so-distant future. But as it turns out, querying sucks and I spent far longer trying to get my books into the hands of literary agents than I could have imagined back then. I spent so long, that by the time I got my agent "HOW I GOT MY AGENT" posts were entirely out of fashion and instead, people just posted a quick twitter thread thanking those who helped them along the way when they announced the good news. So I did the same.

And then... something seemed to change? 

Recently, I've seen people posting on Twitter about how those threads aren't super helpful and many querying writers wish they did see more HOW I GOT MY AGENT posts, because those tend to include more nuggets of wisdom about how to break into the industry. If nothing else, they give a more complete story of how a person managed to get agented. Was it inside connections? Was it a cold query? Was it the author's first book or not?

So with that in mind, I thought I would talk a bit about how I signed with my agent. Querying in 2022 is agreed to be an absolute nightmare, and I can't make any promises this will be the miracle cure you need if you're currently stuck in the query trenches, but it's my attempt to make this story as helpful as possible. Instead of telling the tale chronologically, I've organized my journey around ten things I found particularly helpful. A lot of them are things the querying writer has probably heard of before. But my experience has shown that they're not all things everyone is using (or not using to their full potential).

Hopefully, at least one of these will give you some ideas. Or at least a better guide for your expectations of what the thing can do for you.

Okay! Onto the list, though to start with, here's the basic data on my query journey, so you have some context for what I'm saying later.







QUICK STATS:

Book that got me rep: DEATH ON THE CALDERA, a 105,000 word Adult Fantasy

Previous books that didn't get me rep: Three - two YA Fantasy novels and one YA Contemporary

Years spent querying: 8.5

Request Rate on DOTC: 30.5%

Number of Offers of Rep: 3

Signed with Agent: May 2022

Now Represented by: Penelope Burns at Gelfman Schneider!


So, as you can see, I was at this for quite a while. So what made the difference? Here are ten things that helped!

10. Publisher's Marketplace

There are a lot of resources out there for querying writers, though it can be hard to know which ones are actually valuable. Publisher's Marketplace is frustrating, because it costs so much, but it was also an undeniably valuable tool. If you can afford the $25, I would recommend getting it for a month when you're starting to query, then possibly again when you're fielding calls and you want to compare the various agents. Many of the agents I queried weren't particularly active on Twitter and other public forums, but they had sales posted to Publisher's Marketplace. 

I was switching from querying YA to querying adult fantasy for the first time. I really needed to make sure I had done my research into who was selling what so I didn't send my book off in the wrong direction. I'm glad I spent the money, because the two landscapes are very different to query in. There just aren't as many Sci-Fi/Fantasy presses as there are YA, and that was reflected in the number of agents and sales on Publisher's Marketplace. 

PM helped me compile my list, compare offers and feel confident about choosing my agent. That being said, it's in 10th because I think most people can do without it. Get it if you can. Don't lose sleep over it if you can't.

9. QueryTracker

I've had a QueryTracker membership for a few years now and of all the paid resources, this is the one most worth getting. It's a decent return on investment - $25 for a year, last I checked - and it is genuinely SO HELPFUL! I hate spreadsheets and organizing data, but once I logged all my queries into QueryTracker, behold! It did it for me! I had stats! The ability to see myself in the cue of agent's inboxes! It also has some fun features, like the ability to compare against the average QueryTracker user. I don't have huge opinions on what constitutes a good "request rate" when querying. As they say, it only takes one "yes!" But if I was to give a hot take, I would say log your stats on QueryTracker, compare them against other users and aim to be above average. QT stats reflect the most up-to-date state of the query trenches and are going to be better indicators than the opinion of someone who got their agent a few years ago.

QueryTracker also has some cool features like the ability to see what agents have similar taste, so if you get a request from one, you have an idea who else might like your book. It also can help you find more agents who work in your genre. Always check the agent website, though. QT isn't always fully up to date. 

8. Naomi Davis's QueryManager Form

When I started querying, every agent wanted email queries and after some fumbling around early on, I got pretty good at writing those. Even my first VERY rough book netted me a few requests, because I was decent at pitching. And then, during the querying of my third book, something terrifying happened. Forms began to take over. QueryManager forms.

I kid you not, for several years I didn't get a single request off a form query, even though my email query rate was holding steady. I am very very very bad at filling out forms. Few things give me more anxiety. I never knew exactly what an agent wanted in each particular section. Then, as I was getting ready to query DOTC, I came across BookEnds literary agent Naomi Davis's form. And it had... instructions?! Like, lots of really thorough, really clear instructions?????

I actually never queried Naomi - they were closed to queries during the time I was submitting, but that FORM! Unfortunately, it's not viewable right now, but when they open back up, I seriously recommend that everyone who is bad at forms go and check that form out. Especially if you are of a certain neurodivergence, like me, where your brain breaks when you're asked to do several discreet tasks rather than one big one. Hurray for executive dysfunction! Naomi gave me clear direction for what went in each box, why they wanted it and what an appropriate answer sounded like. Most of it was the same information I had in my old query letters but I finally knew where to paste it and how to tweak my answers to better align with each category.

Even though I didn't query Naomi, I used their instructions to guide me when filling out other agent's QueryManager forms and BEHOLD! My request rate recovered. So thank you, Naomi! Not every agent who helps you along your journey ends up representing you. Sometimes they just go the extra mile to make it easier for authors to succeed.

7. Twitter and Pitch Events

Since I started querying, I followed along with the various Twitter pitch events. Roughly speaking, there are two types - the blog style pitch events that showcase first pages and are VERY competitive to enter, like Pitch Wars, and the hashtag driven free-for-all pitch events like #pitmad and #sffpit that enable anyone to try to get agent attention. They gave me external deadlines to aim for, the ability to network and make friends with other authors, and in some cases they even netted me agent requests.

And... both of these are dying out. Pitch Wars and Pitmad are both over. None of the other blog contests seem to be around anymore. And as for the hashtag pitch events, there aren't nearly as many agents showing up for them, so requests rates from those are down but gosh darn it... they both helped ME and so in the interest of being honest, here it is.

I was a Pitch Wars mentee. Not for the book that got me rep, mind you, but back in 2017, with my third book. It was a valuable experience that ultimately didn't result in much flashy success. But what it did give me were friends who were as serious about writing as I was. Those people became the backbone of my critique group. In general, I would recommend using any Twitter event you can to meet other writers, especially if you're like me and come from somewhere sparsely populated, where you're unlikely to make real-life writing friends. 

As for Pitmad, I used to pitch my old books in that and other hashtag contests for years. Five years ago, those events were easier to get requests in. This year, I think across all the hashtag events, I got two requests total. One from an agent who didn't even like my query. I was ready to write them off as a relic of the past, especially since cold querying was working far better for me. But gosh DARN IT! That other agent like I got? It was from Penelope. And I signed with her. My agent found me in a Twitter pitch party.

I am guessing we're the exception, not the rule. After all, the other offers I got came from cold querying. But am I ever glad I did participate in those contests, because Penelope and I might not have connected otherwise. There aren't a ton of agents (numerically) in those hashtags any more, but some of them (like Penelope) are otherwise closed to queries. So as long as those hashtag pitch parties are around, by all means, participate! Even better, make friends! Statistically, you aren't going to get a ton of likes and you may very well have whole pitch events go by without any agent interaction. That's okay! Doing these events are more about shooting your shot JUST IN CASE.

It's not a reflection on your work if it doesn't pitch well on Twitter. These days, it's not even a reflection on your pitch if it doesn't pitch well on Twitter. There are so many writers trying and so few agents scrolling. But it's worth the few extra minutes to schedule some tweets, so you might as well do it. No shot, no score.

As a caveat, there are some pitch events that are better attended by agents, like #DVpit, and if you qualify for participation in those events, you should definitely participate. As a very white, very straight lady, I do not, so I can't comment on what the numbers are like for #DVpit. My perception is that a few more agents try to turn up for those, since they focus on breaking down barriers to publishing for marginalized creators. Still, if you're participating in one of those and you aren't getting a ton of love, remember: it's not you or your book or even your pitch! There are so many other voices competing in these things. Just assume none of the agents saw you and query them anyway. 

I hope something like Pitch Wars and #Pitmad sticks around on Twitter. It feels like Twitter writer culture is in a bit of a transition. Some of the old stand-byes are fading away and we aren't quite sure what is going to rise up in its place. But using contests as a means of establishing deadlines, making friends and connecting with industry professionals is still a great idea.

6. Casting a Wide Net and Being Patient

Here, I'm going to talk query strategy. I did all the basics - queried in batches, revised between batches when I wasn't seeing the success I wanted to, wrote a new book while in the trenches etc. If you want a thorough breakdown of the batch querying technique, I think this Alexa Donne video is very helpful, though I want to throw in a few caveats to what she says. In fact, those caveats will be most of this section.

First, there are a lot of people who insist you need a crazy high request rate in order to be successful. This just isn't true. Alexa made her video a few years ago and most people agree that request rates have stagnated somewhat. Also, she's focused on the YA market which - when she broke in - was absolutely hopping. So while I recommend using her strategy, I would say aim for a request rate between 10-20% and you'll be doing GREAT. Especially if you're in a lower requesting category, like Adult or Middle Grade. If you want a better idea of what query request rates look like for agented authors, check out these charts compiled by M.V. Pine who polled a bunch of recently represented authors. This was what I looked at when I was trying to gauge my progress this past year.

Second, once you are getting requests, QUERY EVERYONE! One of the other reasons Alexa's stats are so high is - if you listen carefully - because of how targeted her list is. Good sirs and madams and gentlepeople, I did not target my list. No, I queried the crap out of everyone. So long as they sold in my category or were getting trained at an agency with good Sci-fi/Fantasy sales, they got a letter from me. This almost certainly lowered my stats over all, but I didn't care. I knew some of these were long shots, since their lists were so full. Others I just wasn't sure if the agent would vibe with my work, but I tried anyway. The handful of requests I got off these were totally worth it. You're not here to get a perfect request rate. You're here to get an agent. Give everyone the chance to rep you.

I also never bothered personalizing a query unless I had something of substance to say. It just ain't worth the time. If this was an agent who requested a previous book and went back and forth with me for a while talking about it then sure, I mentioned that. But don't break your back trying to come up with personalizations that in the end amount to "I saw this in your MSWL" or some variant. I made this change because I realized it was taking me HOURS to send a single query and doing that work had almost no impact on the request rate. Obviously you should change out the agent's name with each query, but copy and paste, my friends! Get the job done quick so you can get a batch of queries off in an afternoon.

Then comes the hard part. Patience. I know the slow response times suck, but they're an unfortunate part of the process. Also, there seems to be an idea that this is a recent change. It's actually been my experience that an agent taking over a year on a full is normal. Very normal. And yes, there are agents who might take a year to answer queries. This isn't as common, but it is, again, normal. It's been going on since I first started querying and will likely be the case long into the future. If something happens in the writing world that manages to shake these things up and improve conditions for writers, I will be among the first to celebrate it. But until that day, I want to make sure people know that it's not crazy to be patient and wait on a query for a year. It sucks, but it's normal. Querying sucking is normal.

With that, if you DO get an offer of rep, notify everyone, including those queries you were considering closing as non-responders. If you've barely passed the date where they say "if it's silence, it's a no," and you haven't heard anything, follow up, just in case they're a few weeks behind. If their website doesn't explicitly state they're a closed-no-response agent, follow up with a nudge. I got a lot of passes that way, but I also got some requests. Better safe than sorry. Querying takes a long time, and you don't want to cut someone out prematurely.

5. Studying the Craft

So it turns out if you want to write a book you should... um... learn how? 

When I started querying, I was finishing up my MFA in Creative Writing and I really hoped this would give me an edge. Not so much from a clout perspective (agents really don't care if you have an MFA) but I hoped it meant that I knew what I was doing. I knew writing! I had letters next to my name to prove it!

And I'm not saying my MFA didn't help - I learned a lot in school - but it also DID NOT teach me everything I needed to know about writing. Particularly, it didn't teach me everything I needed to know about myself as a writer. So gradually, I made myself study more and more.

I went to writing conferences. I listened to almost the whole back catalogue of Writing Excuses episodes. I watched multiple versions of Brandon Sanderson's Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy class. I bought craft books and read Save the Cat Writes a Novel and learned how to make a beat sheet and then ignored that outline like the pantser I am. The resources you need are going to be specific to you. I can't guess at what particular thing you need to study in order to improve but all of us do need to. In general, I would recommend everyone listen to seasons 10 and 11 of Writing Excuses at some point and if you're focused in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, you should watch Brandon's class. They're free and they're incredibly valuable.

Regardless, it's always a good idea to learn more. Even on my first book, I was getting requests. Some of what I was doing was working, but not enough. I needed to learn more and improve my craft before I could break through, even though I felt SO CLOSE with all three of my previous books. And this all still holds true. I still have so many things I need to learn how to do. One of the reasons I've focused less on craft in this post and more on query strategy is because frankly, I don't feel bold enough to say DO THIS AND YOUR BOOK WILL BE GOOD ENOUGH about anything. And yet, that's the ultimate thing that will get you the agent/book deal/etc. Refining your craft until your work is good enough and the stars align with just enough luck to get your foot through the door.

4. A New Set of Eyes

When I started writing Death on the Caldera, I really felt like this book was the one. I was excited to query it. My first pages had recently won a prize in a first chapter contest and people loved my pitch. It was gonna do great in the query trenches and nab me dozens of requests! Right? 

RIGHT???

Lol, nope. When I first started, I had no bites and I was honestly confused. I was brazenly confident about my book and had been SO CLOSE with book #3 before it. My critique group loved my novel. So what was going wrong?

Well, I luckily had a friend and mentor who agreed to read the first 75 pages of the manuscript and her comments helped me realize something. None of what I had written was BAD, per say, but the scene I had chosen to begin with didn't set up the book as well as I had hoped. I wasn't giving agents the right set of expectations for what came next. Both my query and first pages were decent, but they didn't match. 

So I cut that prize winning chapter and rewrote the entire beginning of the book and with it, a lot of the rest of the manuscript. And THAT version was the one that got me interest. 

Obviously not everyone is going to have the same set of problems when they start to query, but I learned a valuable lesson about outside perspective. My critique group was just too close to the manuscript at that point and like me, couldn't see exactly what wasn't working anymore. My mentor could. Before you query, I would highly recommend putting your work in front of someone you really trust who hasn't seen it before, so that they can spot what you and those you are closest to are blind to. It might save you some stress and tears.

3. Critique Group

I can't say enough good things about my critique group. It can take a lot of time to curate a group and get people who are committed and show up reliably, but once you have it, wow. It's the best. I really believe that critique partners are the one universal behind every great author. Learning to take feedback and integrate it into your writing is the work of a lifetime (still learning!) but it's so worth it.

For anyone looking for a critique group and struggling to find reliable people, man, I get it. If possible, I think you should try to get a group that meets at least bi-weekly, either in person or online. Mine is online and we just start a group chat on Messenger and read pages together once a week. It's the best. I was in several before this one took off and it took years before I got the exact fit I wanted. 

If you don't have a great group yet, just keep meeting people and swapping pages and talking things out until hopefully, you find a group that fits. Talk to your fellow writers. Mention how you would love to find a great critique group. Someone might have a lead. Our group started two years ago, but some of the people who have helped me the most joined after we first founded. They came in because they asked around and heard from our group members that we had something going on they could join.

2. Rewriting the Book

I mentioned the rewrite I did under section four, but here I want to talk more generally about editing. While writing a new book is an important part of growing as a writer and giving yourself the best chance possible while querying, learning how to edit also matters a LOT. 

If the book isn't working, try rewriting it AT LEAST once before giving up on it. Often I hear authors ask how they'll know if something is query ready and my experience is this: you do the best you can, send it out, then discover it wasn't good enough, and rewrite it. 

With all of my books (except one), I did at least one major revision before abandoning them in the query trenches. In every case, my request rate went up after the revision. The only book where I didn't, it was because I could tell the book needed a revision, I just didn't have a good sense of what the rewrite would look like, so I moved on to the next book. 

Obviously, you try to rewrite your book to the best of your ability before ever sending it out, but don't be afraid to go back and rewrite if things aren't going well. Get some outside eyes on it (as mentioned in point 4) and then try to rework it into something stronger. 

My third book actually netted me two different Revise and Resubmit requests. These taught me a lot about revision and in some ways, I felt like I finally knew how to assign myself an R&R when I went back to rewrite Death on the Caldera. Revision is a learned skill and even if your book does still die in the query trenches, like my earlier ones did, I'm glad I spent the time learning how to revise so that I could successfully do it later.

1. Writing Another Book

So say you've queried that book, sent it out, revised it, sent it out again and it's STILL not working out for you? Well, perchance, the time has come. Time to write another book. Ideally, you've been drafting it already while the last book was in the query trenches, so the transition isn't too much of a shock. But there still seems to be a point where we have to make a conscious choice to let one project die and focus on another.

Generally, I would say try to get to 100 or so queries before letting a project die. Though I'll be honest, some genres there might not be 100 agents to query, especially if you query agencies that are one-and-done. But at LEAST 50 then. Don't give up too soon.

One of the stickiest decisions I had to make in my own query journey came in late 2020 when an agent offered me a Revise and Resubmit opportunity with my previous novel, the YA Contemporary. This had been my Pitch Wars novel and it was - without question - the best book I had ever written. 

So far.

The thing was, I was halfway through my draft of Death on the Caldera, which I was way more excited about, plus it was a completely different type of book. An agent who loved my YA Contemporary might not want me to give them an Adult Fantasy next. I waffled for several weeks about which one to focus on until, in the end, the new book won out. Sure, I could make the old book better by revising it again, but I knew I had a different, BETTER book on my hands if I could just finish it. I felt a little crazy letting the old book die before it was truly dead, but I had already been around the R&R block with that manuscript once before and I knew this opportunity could also result in another "no."

In addition to writing, I also love to paint, and when using watercolor, there's always a risk of going over the same section too many times until it looks overworked. That can happen in writing too. We can stall out on the same project for too long, when it might be more helpful to move on to something new. 

In the end, I really do believe that the best decision I made for my writing career was to keep writing new books. I could incorporate the new things I was learning until eventually, I had a better book. I've loved all my projects, but it really is okay to let one go and allow yourself to fall in love with something new. It might just be the book you really needed.


So. There you go. That's the list. It's too long. I'm sorry, brevity was never my strong suit (which is why I needed to learn to edit). But those are the things that helped me. I hope they help you. And I hope you publish a million books.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Name Meg's Cat on Neptune Bay Contest!!!!




For most followers of this blog, I don't think it's any surprise to learn that rather than blogging lately, I have been working on a comic. Neptune Bay is free to read on Webtoon and Tapas!



In celebration of making it to fifteen (fifteen! 😱) episodes, I'm hosting a give-away to name Meg's new cat! Participating in this will really help the comic grow and enable me to keep making it. If you're curious about how Webtoon works and how to support artists like me on the platform, feel free to keep reading below. But first thing's first! You can enter the contest here, via Rafflecopter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Here are my quick stipulations for the contest/cat names. Most of these are just to help the contest run smoothly and also make sure I get a name that actually fits inside word balloons when I'm lettering the comic:

This is an all-ages comic, so cat names must be G-Rated. Cat name also must consist of letter combinations that are readily pronounceable in the English language. Max length: 12 letters. I reserve the right to write Meg using adorable, shortened nickname versions of the name. Winner will be required to submit their selected cat name within five days of being notified they have won, or the contest will draw again for a new winner. For interest's sake, the cat is male, though if you want to name him Princess Purr I won't stop you.

Next, for the uninitiated, here's the pitch for the comic, as it appears on Webtoon:

After a bad break-up, Meg is living on her best friend's couch, desperate for change. When she finds a small farm on picturesque Neptune Island, she jumps at the chance to escape the big city, just like the characters in her favorite farming sim games! 

But quirky townspeople are harder to befriend in real life. And maybe the reason the farm is so cheap has something to do with the dead body in the river.

Created using ink, watercolor and whatever other art supplies I have on hand, NEPTUNE BAY updates Thursdays and is perfect for fans of video games like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley.

It really means a lot to me, the amount of support that people have given my work on this new comic. I started it on a lark, then found I really loved making it. I'm hopeful I can make this comic a regular part of my creative life. And since you guys are wonderful, and I know so many of you are trying to support me, I thought it might be helpful to let you all know what kinds of support are currently the most useful for me as a fledgling creator. Or honestly, any creator on Webtoon. 

I know I personally can really struggle to know what works best/means the most to creators when I engage with their work, even when I want to show support. So after much research, these are the things that seem to help the most right here, right now for getting my work in front of people.

1. Subscribe to the comic and read all the episodes!

Webtoon has some great features for supporting artists through ad-revenue sharing, once they reach a certain threshold for subscribers and views. Essentially, if you are subscribed to the comic and reading regularly, you are already helping so much! THANK YOU!!!

2. Leave hearts/likes on the Episode on Webtoon!

Webtoon also tracks "likes" and increases support/visibility to comics based on how many little hearts each episode racks up. If you're already reading the comic, it can be a HUGE help to drop a heart once you're done the episode. Yes, even episodes with Greg in them. Even if you (understandably) hate him.

3. Share the comic with your friends!

Whether through social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc) or in real life with actual people, word of mouth support means so much to me and helps get the comic in front of people who otherwise might not know about it! Also, if you still have real life friends, color me impressed in these Pandemic-laden times.

As you can see, the contest is structured around those three things. Once again, I really value all the support I've already received (and if you've made it to the end of this post then like, wow. You are a pal!) and I can't wait to keep making this comic and sharing it with all of you. 

Best of luck! Sharpen those cat names! And see you for another episode of Neptune Bay next week. :)


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Best Animated Feature and Why We Need a Best Children's Film Oscar

I've mentioned before on this blog that one of the - ahem - hallmarks of my family Christmas experience is my mother's taste in movies. Put simply, my mother has never met a Christmas film she didn't like, or at least find watchable. She's always on the hunt for pleasant holiday background noise while she sews or wraps presents. She's watched more than her fair share of made for TV movies and with the rise of Netflix, and the Netflix Christmas deluge we get each year, her numbers have only gone up.

Of course, what she really hopes for is that somewhere, buried in the pile of yellow Christmas snow, she'll stumble across a film that can join the likes of White Christmas, A Christmas Carol and Ernest Saves Christmas in the family's yearly holiday rotation. Still, she doesn't expect much from the average Christmas flick and I - who frequently gets dragged into watching these movies with her - have learned to hope for even less.

Which is part of what made this year such a treat. One Friday night in November, we fired up Netflix, hunting for a Christmas movie, and it immediately recommended a new animated film to us. It was, of course, Klaus, which is also the first foray Netflix has taken into producing feature length animation.

A few minutes into the movie, my father hadn't left the room in disinterest yet, mom had laughed at several jokes and I'd complimented the animation style roughly fifty times. At this point I looked at my mother and said, "wait... did we put a good movie on?"

I was just as confused as Jesper when I found myself enjoying this film.
Yes, Virginia. By some Christmas miracle, it turned out that we were watching a good movie.

A "New" Christmas "Classic"

Klaus isn't perfect, but there is so very much to like about it. The story offers a fun, new take on the story of Santa Claus, with enjoyable characters and a plot that, while predictable, really strikes the heartstrings in the end. WHEN HE WALKS OFF INTO THE SNOW, GUYS! WHEN HE WALKS OFF!!!! (Insert crying face here). Still, where the film really shines isn't so much in the story department as it is the visuals.

Sergio Pablos directed the film and spent years developing its style and story to be exactly as he wanted it, but for a long time, couldn't find a studio willing to back it. It was risky for several reasons, the Christmas content among them. Most recent film studios haven't been able to make much money off of Christmas theater releases, due to the stiff competition from the likes of Disney and other headliner movies. To give an idea, if Klaus had been in theaters during this same time frame, it would have faced off against Frozen II and likely fallen flatter than a pancake.

Luckily, Netflix isn't trying to fill theater seats. The Christmas movie crowd is more likely to want to watch something new while bundled up in cozy blankets, sipping cocoa. It was why Christmas movies were such a natural market for Netflix in the first place and Klaus's Christmas focus meant they could guarantee themselves an audience for their first, splashy foray into animated film.

Still, they could have gone the lazy way making this film, (as Netflix has been willing to be with some of their other Christmas fare), but everything about Klaus speaks to what a passion project it was. The last 2D animated film produced by a major Hollywood studio was Winnie the Pooh, an adaptation Disney put out in 2011. Before that, it was Princess and the Frog in 2009. Both of those movies have their fans, but their lack of box office domination led Disney to give up on their brief flirtation with trying to bring 2D animation back after its collapse in the early 2000s.

When Sergio Pablos made Klaus, he wanted to create something that wasn't such a nostalgic throwback, as Disney's last two attempts were, but instead had its own style that incorporated digital tools. By utilizing software to shade and light the characters, his studio created something that had the expressive, cartoony quality so loved about old hand drawn cartoons, while also benefiting from the depth and sense of three dimensional form that makes 3D animation so beautiful. And to do this, his team had to develop all the new software themselves.

I highly recommend checking out YouTube and the many videos that showcase the animation style of Klaus from test footage all the way up to it's released form. They provide a fascinating behind the scenes look at the production of animation and give some idea of how much work and thought went into this goofy Christmas flick.

I've wanted to write about Klaus for a while, but couldn't settle on the right angle, then Christmas came and went, making me sad I lost my chance. But lo and behold, the Blogging Gods must be looking out for me, because Klaus just faced off against Frozen II again and this time, it won.

Oscar Madness

As of the writing of this blog post, I have seen every Oscar winning animated movie ever. In fact, I even have ranked them, a list I plan on updating once this year's winner is announced. More than likely, I'm going to need to see this year's winner first, since I didn't get to many movies in theater during early 2019, due to a lack of wiggle room in my budget.

I've heard good things about all of the nominees. While I find any year that doesn't nominate at least one Japanese film a bit suspicious, I do think the list is a good representation of the diversity of films that North American and European animation studios are putting out. I'm not quite sure which horse I'm cheering for the most. By virtue of Toy Story 4 being in the mix, it's the default front runner, as the Academy historically bends to Disney and Pixar if they turn out a film that registers as "good." That's the problem of the Academy awards. More often than not, they award the big players who have deep pockets for "For Your Consideration" campaigns and private viewings with Academy voters.

So when the nominees were announced and Klaus beat out Frozen II to take the final spot on the ballot, I will admit, I cheered a little. The film had been snubbed at the Golden Globes, not just in favor of Frozen II, but also for that brown mush of a movie, Disney's new Lion King, which is nothing but a shroud of a better film. To be clear, I don't dislike Frozen II. It's fine. But it lacks the heart of the first movie and I can't say I came home from it feeling particularly much of anything. It certainly didn't illicit the same reaction I had at Klaus because WHEN HE WALKS OFF INTO THE SNOW, GUYS!!!!

If I had to pinpoint one reason why Frozen II didn't work for me, it was likely because none of the emotional stakes felt very real. The film didn't do the best job of setting up the emotional thrust of the film, unlike the first one, where you feel the ache of the sisters' loneliness within a couple short scenes. Frozen II spent a long time trying to establish its emotional heart of righting past wrongs, no matter the consequences. When the climax came, and Anna is making her pivotal choices alone and singing her song, my thoughts were more, "oh, so THIS is what the story was building to" rather than "OH MY HEART!!!" I also don't think the story was helped by the use of *SPOILER* a false death scene for Elsa or Olaf in it because, as an adult, I just couldn't believe this movie would kill it's characters. They make Disney too much money for that.

Into the Unknown: Where Elsa literally states that
she doesn't know why she's doing this movie.

Now, some of you might be going, "but it's a KIDS movie! My kid couldn't tell Olaf wasn't dead! That hit him super hard! You can't judge Disney for not meeting your cynical expectations as an adult viewer! It still deserved to be nominated for an Oscar!" To that I have two counter arguments.

1) Klaus is a kids movie too, that still manages tight emotional stakes, as evidenced by WHEN HE WALKS OFF INTO THE SNOW!!! SERIOUSLY!!!!!!

2) Here's the thing... the award is for best animated movie. Not best kid's movie.

So, um... What's that Oscar About, Anyway?

I have watched every single winner of the best animated movie Oscar and every one of them is appropriate for children. Rango might not be particularly interesting to younger children, but still, a kid over ten would have no problem with it.

The Academy still reflects the views of white North America towards film, despite its efforts to diversify. One of the consequences of that is a lack of appreciation or acceptance of animated films that are not made for children. Japanese animation is notably more diverse in terms of its intended audience, yet if you look at which Japanese anime films get nominated for Oscars, it's predominantly the ones that can be marketed towards children.

Occasionally, we get outliers. This year's nominees even includes one, a French film about severed hand titled I Lost My Body, which is conveniently also on Netflix, and next on my "to watch" list. But I can't imagine it has much of a shot up against the likes of Toy Story and... well, Toy Story. And not only does this seem unfair to movies like I Lost My Body, but I would argue, it's unfair to the likes of Toy Story 4 as well. How are you supposed to compare two films like that?

How are you supposed to compare Loving Vincent, a film painstakingly painted to resemble the work of Van Gogh to Coco, the movie it lost the animation Oscar to in 2018? In 2007, how did the Academy choose between an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's memoir graphic novel, Persepolis, about growing up in Iran, and Ratatouille? The problem isn't that some of these movies aren't "good enough" or "deserving" but that their intended audiences have so little to do with each other.

Loving Vincent. This movie is still on my "to watch" pile and PLEASE!
Suggestions in comments on where to find it!

In the book world this year, no one is pitting Margaret Atwood's Testaments against Angie Thomas's On the Come Up. Just because Atwood won the Booker doesn't mean Thomas doesn't have a shot at the Printz award. And no YA novel is going to take the Newbery medal away from a deserving Middle Grade book (though there was the year a picture book won the Newbery, which was... a choice?).

Movie land, however, has no conceptual framework for distinguishing between media meant for children and media meant for adults. Television only came across the concept due to network programming, where certain shows could only air after sensitive eyes were likely in bed, and where commercial interests meant the after school slot was perfect for catching the ages five through twelve crowd.

I've talked before about how the rating system is often used to signal what audience a film is meant for, irrespective of actual content concerns. It's why La La Land contains exactly one F-bomb in an otherwise language, sex and violence free movie. It's not that the content was inappropriate, just that the movie was meant for adults and a musical with a G rating would have likely confused viewers.

AWARDS FOR EVERYONE!!!

One of the other major ways we signal "for children" in our culture is with animation. When I look at the list of winning movies, what I see isn't so much a list of the risky, artistically innovative animated movies. Instead, it's a list of generally solid children's films. Coco is a phenomenal children's movie, but I don't think you can call it more innovative to animation as an art form than Loving Vincent, the first fully painted animated movie ever. And it's a shame, because in a better world, they both would have awards. Loving Vincent for Achievements in Animation, which would now be a technical award, and Coco for Best Children's Film (or Family Film, though I would rather see the award focus on children so as to avoid the devaluing of "popular" movies that may or may not be for children, but lots of families see.)

Into the Spiderverse is another film I have a million thoughts on.
Sound off in the comments if you want a blog post on it!

On occasion, the two do collide. Last year, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse was both the most gorgeous and ground-breaking animated film and also a triumph of storytelling, appropriate for children. But we're fine with plenty of other films winning multiple categories, so why not these? Besides, having a category for Best Children's Film would open the door for great movies that don't meet the requirements of other awards. If I could retroactively create this award, there's no way any of the animated films of 1987 would win Best Children's Film, when The Princess Bride came out that year. It's a shoe in!

It also might correct some of the problems the Academy faced when they tried to create a "Best Popular Film" category. By focusing on intended audience by age, rather than reinforcing their own idea that "popular blockbuster movies are by definition not artistic," we might have a place to acknowledge some truly great films that are not aimed at adults. Clearly, there would still be a gray area for a lot of blockbusters aimed at teenagers, but I can't solve all the problems in this blog post. At the very least, I wish there was a space that acknowledged the range of films made for children and one that spoke to the diversity of the world's animation.

For now, Klaus is probably the stand-out as a technical piece, but is it the best story of the whole field? Is it the best children's movie? Klaus's claim to that is much shakier.

Regardless, I'm cheered by the animation nominees. Disney has such an iron grip on the category, it was nice to see their fingers loosened a little. With so little other positive news in this year's Oscar nominations, as far as diversity goes, at least the animation category wasn't owned by one company.

At least until Toy Story 4 inevitably wins them yet another award.


Friday, December 27, 2019

Writing, Art and Creator Burn-Out: A Tale of 2019

For anyone working in the creative arts, figuring out where to get inspiration and refill that so-called "artistic well" is among the most important of challenges they face. For myself, I have a number of strategies. Going for walks, talking about movies and books with my friends and, of course, watching musicals.

One musical I think about often when I'm in creative downturns, looking for renewed vigour, is Sondheim and Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, which tells the fictionalized story of French post-impressionist George Seurat and how he came to paint his most famous work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.


In the musical, everyone pictured is singing!
Throughout the play, various characters comment on George's obsession with the painting, what it means to be an artist and what art even is. There are lots of characters offering hot takes, but one has always stood out to me. 

Work is what you do for other people. Art is what you do for yourself.

I don't particularly agree. Art, I tend to think, has more to do with the content of the piece rather than the origin or expression of the creation, and yet I've often thought this quote gets at something very real. This crosses out of the realm of visual art and also applies to the art of writing.

Writing for Yourself and Other People

When starting out, most books grow from an idea the author is passionate about. In the sense of the quote from Sunday in the Park with George, this is where art is not work. It's a thing writers do for themselves; scribbling new stories with fresh, new ideas. If this was the whole writing process, then writing never would be work, but it is, and all too often, it becomes work the moment other people enter the picture.

Almost everything that you can buy published in a bookstore found its way there by way of a major publishing company and was touched not just by the author, but also an editor and probably an agent and maybe a marketing department and definitely a cover designer. And along the way, they asked the author to make (le gasp!) changes.

I got a first hand taste of this over the past year, when an agent I queried asked me to complete a revise and resubmit. Most of the changes she asked for I agreed would make the book better, so I got to work. And work it certainly was, because that level of unpacking a book is not something I would have done "for myself."

I've gone through forms of this process before, and don't get me wrong. I enjoy my work. But maybe because I spent so much of this year revising, writing felt like less fun than it usually does. All writers have their favourite parts of the writing process and mine are early on - usually idea generation, drafting and reworking the "first draft" into it's second, slightly less messy iteration. Those are such fun stages. I do them for myself.

I'm proud of the revision I did this year. I'm grateful for the eyes of other people and for the pressure I feel to make my writing something that communicates ideas more clearly and meets the needs of my audience, not just my own. But in a tough year, where the writing felt like work, I needed something to refill my creative well more than usual.

So writing was what I did for other people. Art was what I did for myself.

Children and Art

I can say with utmost confidence, I did not come into this world with extraordinary talent for visual art. I made blobs and squiggles and stick-men of the same caliber as my peers. But did I ever love doing it. Creating something and then being able to hold it up and say "look!" was reason enough to keep at it. I think most children are like this. They love putting something into the world that didn't exist before and they rarely question if their work is "quality." It's just pure art. Something they do for themselves, not other people.

The hard part is keeping kids drawing once they're old enough to compare their work to their peers and start realizing some kids are progressing faster than others. Here, my greatest talent was not in producing great art, but in being oblivious. For years, I pressed on filling massive binders full of "masterpieces" that were nothing more than weirdly proportioned renderings of my stuffed animals. Yes, I kept these and yes, I still love them.

I only chanced upon the concept of artistic "skill" in Grade 4 when I became close friends with the girl who everyone agreed was the best artist in our class. For a split second, I felt discouraged, but she loved drawing and she was my friend, so we drew together and that was that. I got comfortable being worse at something than someone else, and that kept my artistic spirit alive. I kept drawing my stuffed animals, but increasingly, I also designed original characters based on the stories I made up. I shamelessly copied the work of my older sister and her friends, who also liked drawing, learning early Picasso's lesson of "stealing like an artist." Sorry to plagiarize you, Kate.

Sometime around my late teens, it became apparent that I actually did draw better than most of my friends (though not all. I've consistently spent my life with at least one best friend who is better at art than I am. Shout out to today's model, Lean Conrad!). But getting where I am today in art was a slow process born of years upon years of both doodling and intentional practice.

Move On

Fast-forward to January of 2019, when I was starting the year in a strange place. I was job hunting, slogging through a revision of my book that wouldn't come together and living in a new city. From the outset, 2019 had a lot of difficult things working against it, and I could feel myself struggling to keep my head afloat.

I needed a survival strategy. After reading some literature online about the use of art in therapy, I decided I need to reinvest in one of my old hobbies. Art is known for having profound mental health benefits and best of all, skill has nothing to do with effectiveness! The mere act of creating and expressing oneself artistically is helpful. With that in mind, I gave it a try.

Going into this year, I felt rusty. My artistic progress has not always been linear, and I was out of practice. Some seasons of my life, I've devoted more time to art than others and I can still look at old pieces that stack up decently next to what I create now. For example, here is a baseball card sized painting of raccoons in our family cherry tree I did 10 years ago that is STILL the best raccoon related piece I've ever done.


Progress is a lie!

Or so it felt. But I needed art this year. I needed something that I could do for myself, that would bring me joy and refill my creative well when my writing was hard and burning me out.

To start, I watched a few art YouTube videos for inspiration, including a few that talked about their *~*art journey*~* and overwhelmingly, a lot of these artists mentioned how posting their work online helped them, even when their work wasn't what many people would describe as "good" yet. Just posting it helped them be accountable, made them take stock of their own progress and prompted positive feedback from family and friends who were just pleased to see them creating.

Ever since Grade 4 introduced me to friends who drew better than I did, I've been painfully aware of how flawed my own artwork is. It took a lot of nerve to start posting my work, but I figured I could use the kick-in-the-butt accountability gave me, plus whatever positive reinforcement my circle might give. So I took the dive.

First, and more important than I might have expected, I organized my supplies. I went through a Marie Kondo phase at the end of 2018 and got rid of a LOT of stuff that was otherwise overcrowding the new space I lived in. One of the discoveries I made during this was that every single one of my art supplies sparked joy and I had no interest in getting rid of a single tube of paint, but they also weren't likely to do me much good buried in a closet. Realizing this, I moved my art supplies to their own unit in my bedroom. Everyday, I wake up and they stare at me from beneath a poster of Porgs, reminding me I should be making art.

So I got out my watercolours, the most joyful of my supplies, and I made myself paint.

I started with my comfort zone. I don't draw my stuffed animals as much any more, but fan art is kind of comparable, so I painted some faces from the Umbrella Academy.

Painted early March 2019, when I really got going

I really enjoyed working on these, but I also found painting took a LOT of time and specialized supplies. You have to really set up water and your work area, and I didn't always have the space and time to do so. During my Kon-Marie purge, I whittled down my sketchbooks to the drawings I wanted to keep, plus a sketchbook I had halfheartedly started with a drawing or two the previous year. It was portable and it was there, so good enough.

The paper in that sketchbook wasn't the best, so at first I tried to stay black and white. The one time I added paints, the pages buckled like crazy. But black and white art tends to bore me a bit, in part because I'm stronger at colour theory than I am line art. I realized I was more likely to draw if I gave myself permission to colour pieces afterwards, so even though the paper could barely handle the ink, I pulled out my old prismacolour markers. Eventually, I got some pieces I was happy with.


It was a lot of fun rediscovering my markers. They don't always feel as "classy" as my watercolours do, but I love their vibrancy and I had to admit, I was probably better at using them than I was paint. I tried harder to bounce back and forth between the two, as I learned to get different effects with the different media.

Since I was job hunting, I didn't have a lot of extra cash lying around for new supplies or classes, so I focused on using what I had and studying free, online lessons. (I have so many opinions on "Art YouTube" now and what videos/content creators might be useful for a beginner like me. Let me know if you need recommendations!) Watching them prompted me to do some basic "good practice" exercises I'd neglected over the years, like swatching all my paints and markers, filling the whole page in a sketchbook and practicing body parts from different angles. As someone who uses alcohol based markers, I also quickly ran into the cult of Copic users and learned there were markers with velvety brush nibs, that let you blend and color in a way that resembles painting. I was intrigued, but too poor to consider such treasures.

My other great resource was the aforementioned best friend and better artist, Leah Conrad. A young, busy mum, Leah was excited to see me get back into art and wanted to draw together immediately. Whether she was working on commissions or something just for fun and practice, her company was always a huge blessing. She knew things. I could hold something up to her and say, "something is wrong but what?????" and she could spout off quick, helpful advice like, "the foreground and background are too similar" or "that arm should be longer" and then I could get back to work. Check her out on Instagram and enjoy a peek of some of her awesome work below!

Shooting Stars Over Mill Hill, by Leah Conrad
Leah also introduced me to the very addiction I thought I couldn't afford. As I rambled to her about the art videos I had been watching and how badly I wanted to try brush nibbed alcohol markers she casually uttered the words, "I have Copics."

Copics. The industry standard, Rolls-Royce of alcohol markers. She had a small, carefully curated set that she rarely used, and was willing to lend them to me.

Prismacolour markers are very good markers and besides which, there are far more important things than art supply quality when it comes to creating art. Still, supplies do help. Once I got used to the feel of them, I couldn't deny that they worked better than what I was used to. They blended smoother and layered gorgeously. My art took a jump up in overall quality and going back to my old markers was slightly depressing.

First Copic illustrations, from July 2019
I decided to use some coupons to buy just a small set of Copic markers of my own. I expected to spend a very long time building my Copic collection up to the same numbers as my Prismacolour markers, until salvation arrived in the form of Facebook Marketplace. Someone was selling their collection of lightly used Copics for roughly 80% off the regular retail price.

After that? I kept drawing. I took books out of the library. I practiced the exercises they suggested. I joined an art group that trades art around the world and sent in baseball card sized illustrations to new friends. As I continued to post my work online, I made more friends and saw more art that inspired me, and they were kind enough to encourage me in my art journey.

By the beginning of September, two magical things happened. First, I filled a 75 page sketch book that I'd started only six months earlier, which was far more than I'd drawn in years. Second, I had a job! The summer had been very stressful, due to the ongoing job hunt, so getting some stability was a tremendous blessing. I honestly don't know if I could have made it through the summer without art. It kept me sane and feeling like I was accomplishing something when there weren't obvious milestones to point to in my work and writing.

With that in mind, I decided I wanted to do something big and challenging in my *~*art journey*~* as a way of saying thank you to the thing that kept me going through the year. With that in mind, I geared up for my first ever Inktober.

Inktober 2019

Every year, artists around the world challenge themselves during the month of October with the task of producing more art and learning new skills. The basic form of the challenge is this:

1) To produce a new work of art each day of the month
2) Drawn in ink
3) Based on an official prompt list released each year.

There are people who fudge the rules, which is fine. Maybe they don't have time to draw every day or work digitally. Plus, there are roughly 50 billion prompt lists that pop up each year for those who don't want to use the official one. But for my first year, I played it pretty traditional. Conveniently, I wanted to practice dip pen inking, plus I'd never forced myself to generate that many drawings in a single month before. The prompt list seemed like a good source of ideas when burn-out inevitably set in, so I also committed to that.

Challenges were no stranger to me. Writers use the following month, November, as NaNoWriMo - or National Novel Writing Month. I had never successfully done NaNo, however, so I was a bit nervous going into Inktober. Still, I felt as ready as I ever could be.

I'm still processing everything I learned during the month. In an effort to try to organize some of my thoughts, here's a list.

1) It's absolutely possible! Despite some occasionally rocky days and nights that went until 3 am, I finished the challenge. My new sketchbook has one drawing for every day of October and for that alone, I am immensely proud and grateful.

2) It's absolutely possible to burn yourself out doing it! To minimize the pressure, I chose all my materials ahead of time and used the same supplies and process EVERY SINGLE DAY. I wanted to get rid of as many on-the-fly decisions as possible, so I could focus on the challenge and moving on with my life. Still, I was losing my mind a little towards the end. Consider, for instance, this image from Day 30, prompt word "Catch." It was drawn upside down and on the wrong side of the page in my sketchbook, but I did not realize it until after it was done. I also had giant, scribbly blobs by it that I hastily covered up with a digital speech bubble for my Instagram post.

What a catch.
3) It's unlikely you will get thirty-one brilliant works of art from the challenge. But you'll get something. Some days, I didn't have time or energy to throw myself at a piece for a long time. Almost everything I drew that month felt a little rushed. I couldn't return to something the next day and refine it, because it was too important that I move on to the next picture. Allowing myself to be happy with something quick and easy was an important survival strategy.

4) I generally conceptualized a piece, drew, inked and coloured all in one day. This lack of forethought meant I learned a few things about my default style. Going in, I knew I drew a lot of people and faces, but what surprised me was how often I turned to animals. These were frequently my favourite pieces and the ones I was most likely to use reference photos for.

Days 24 and 23
5) Even though I wanted to improve my inking and line art, I found my colouring with Copics probably saw the most progress. Ah well.

6) While most of the challenge passed in a flurry, there were still days when life came together and I actually made something better and stronger than my usual work. You throw enough darts, eventually one will hit the bull's eye. This stretch of drawings really sang for me.

Days 11 through 13
7) By the end, when I was finishing the challenge just so I could say that I did it, it felt like... work. And that's okay. If I was left to FOLLOW MY BLISS everywhere in life, I would never finish anything. And with that in mind, by the time I was done Inktober, I was ready to be done something else too.

Putting it Together

By the end of October, I had a very full sketchbook and no desire to draw anything for a couple of weeks while I recuperated. So what did I do instead? I finished revising my book.

I had been chipping away at that revision all year long, but going into November, I felt an extra degree of oomph pushing me. My creative well was full of fan art, Copic markers, drawing sessions with Leah, reference photos, dip pens and watercolours. Within a few weeks I was done, had notes back from Beta readers and could query my book for the first time in over a year... right on time for the holiday slowdown.

But that's okay. I might not have word back about my book, but it exists in a more refined version now, as do pages of art that helped me through it. In my own life, I do believe art can be work, and that we do it both for ourselves and for other people. Going into the new year, I don't know what project will be my main focus. I've been working on revising one book for a long time and now, it's time to find it a home with an agent or publisher. Failing that, it's probably time to write something new. I'm not certain what that will be yet. I might need to do some sketching to figure it out.

What I really learned this year was the importance of a hobby. Art might not be the thing that intervenes on your behalf, but it certainly helped me. At the Storymakers Conference this year, I heard a wonderful quote in a talk given by Josi Kilpack.

That which takes me away from writing gives me something to write about.

At the time, I thought of the things that take me away from writing against my will, like day jobs and family commitments, but now I want to advocate for the things we willingly let take us away from our artistic passions. You cannot draw water from an empty well, so find a way to fill it. Let yourself have something you "do for yourself" that doesn't feel at all like work.

As I reach a crossroads in my writing, I'm at a similar one in my art. I don't know what my next big goal will be now that Inktober is over. For Christmas, I asked for some new art supplies and am lucky enough that many of them showed up in my stocking and under the tree come Christmas morning. There's definitely some playing around and inspiration to be found there.

Still, I think the most profound gift I received was one that came from another young artist. My eight-year-old nephew spent weeks leading up to Christmas telling me how excited he was to give me the gift he picked out for me. When I opened it, I found a black, hardbound sketchbook, just like the one I used for Inktober, with one critical difference. The first page had an inscription from him.

Don't Let the muggles get you down - Ron Weasley
Isn't that what art is really all about? You can't let the muggles get you down. You fight back with colour and line and composition and the love it takes to create something. 

Looking back, I won't pretend 2019 wasn't a hard year. I knew it would be, and it was. But something good came out of it. I haven't figured out what all my illustrious goals will be for 2020, but with the right friends, attitude and hobbies, I think I'll get through it.

Happy New Year, friends! May yours be filled with beautiful art.