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I’ve discovered that learning photography is not unlike studying writing. Everyone seems to think they can write a book, but it takes a lot more than just putting some words on paper to weave a good story together. There is an art form to it. The same goes for photography. Now that cameras are in plentiful supply, mostly on everyone’s phones, there is a huge surge of amateurs trying to be artistic without actually studying what makes a photo good.

Don’t get me wrong, I still consider myself to be an amateur in many ways because I’m still learning. Plus I have nothing against the average person wanting to take pictures. But there are many things that I’ve finally mastered and a lot of trial and error that has made me realize why photographers do what they do, and it’s given me a little more respect for the ones who go above and beyond.

Getting up at 4am to go for a hike so you can get to a particular location by 7am is not necessarily the most fun thing in the world when you’re not a morning person. (Which I’m not.) But I gotta tell you, that light makes for some pretty spectacular photos.

Case in point:

UpperFalls1

That flowy water effect? Not possible unless you have softer light. Just after dawn or right before dusk is best. (There’s a reason they call it “Golden Hour.”)

So how much of a difference does the proper lighting really make? Well, I happened to come across one of my first photos the other day, after I visited the exact same spot nearly two years later. It’s not a bad photo, and to be perfectly honest I was quite proud of it when I first took it. I had just barely started taking photography seriously, and this was a completely new location to me. It happened to be at the lovely Green Lakes, located in my beautiful home state of Oregon. It’s a very popular hike, often used as training grounds for marathon runners. It’s a full four miles to get to the lakes themselves, but once you’re there, it’s spectacular.

The lakes are nestled in between two large mountains, the South Sister and Broken Top. As her name implies, the South Sister is furthest south of a trio of peaks known as the Three Sisters. They’re all roughly around 10,000 feet in elevation, with South Sister as the tallest of the three.

As I went through my current pictures, I remembered taking similar photos two years ago and decided to see how far my photography has come. Low and behold, I found my original:

DSC_0835

Again, it’s not a bad photo. The lakes really are that emerald color (hence their name) and the looming peak of South Sister is much more intimidating in person. I used this photo in my first ever calendar that I gave to friends and family as a Christmas present. However, this shot was taken mid-afternoon, probably at the peak of the day, which is the worst lighting one can ask for when it comes to photos.

When I hiked it again this year, I went much earlier in the day and got to the lakes while it was still morning. That meant we missed a lot of the crowds, and because the sun wasn’t directly overhead, the lake looked like this instead:

SouthSister1

Technically, a little bit earlier would have been even better, but I’m quite happy with how these turned out overall. Within the space of an hour, this reflection was no longer visible and there were several other people in the area, including several who decided to go for a swim. I don’t begrudge them wanting to swim, of course, but that would have put quite a crimp in my style if I had still been trying to capture images.

I still have a long ways to go, I know. But I’m really happy with how far I’ve come. There are lots of doors and opportunities opening for me, and I’m thrilled to take advantage of every single one that comes my way.

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I really appreciate all of the support that I’ve received in starting my own business, and that includes from readers of this blog. My amazing friends and family are already spreading the word, and every time I see that my page is shared on FB, I get a happy feeling. 😀

So why photography? Don’t get me wrong, writing is still one of my primary passions in life. But photography and graphic design is incredibly rewarding in its own right. When you learn how to post-process photos and add your own creative flair to them, you get amazing results. As I’ve played around with settings over the years, I’ve had fun watching my own personal style grow and transform. That’s part of your marketing strategy. Yes, there might be a ton of other pictures out there of the mountains or forests, but what makes yours unique? I guess my ultimate goal is that someday, people will be able to look at one of my photos and automatically know that it’s mine because it will be different enough from all the others.

While I still have a lot to learn (like night/astral photography for one), I’ve been fortunate to have access to the works of certain photographers who have helped give me some great advice. For example, I can now take a variety of pictures and know how to post-process them in a way that I never could before. I mean, I can take a photo like this:

SmithRockUnedited

This was taken up at Smith Rock State Park, practically in my little city’s backyard. It’s one of the most visited tourist spots in our area.

And I can make it into something ethereal, almost other-worldly with its colors and effects:

SmithRock17

Does it look surreal? Sure it does. But that’s the beauty of photography. We are able to take something that seems too good to be true and bring people happiness whenever they get to see it. I think that’s part of what really drives me as a landscape/nature photographer. I love the idea of being able to capture an image for someone who might never get the chance to see that place in real life. And for the locals here who have gotten to hike this thing multiple times, it’s fun for them to recognize their own landscape on a greeting card or in a calendar.

To me, this is what makes both writing and photography such great professions. When I write a story, I want to take my readers to a whole different world, where they can forget their everyday life and enjoy seeing what my characters will do next. When I take a photo, I want to let people imagine what that place must be like and give them a little bit of peace every time that they look at it hanging on their wall.

Life is amazing, guys. After the hardships that I endured for so many years, I never thought that I could experience this kind of happiness in doing what I love for a living. It’s hard work. But it is oh so rewarding.

Follow your dreams. Do what you love. Never give up.

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Happy late Birthday to me! New year, new direction, and thankfully, some new music!

I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I’m one of those people who can’t really write anything unless I have music playing. I know some people have to have total silence to concentrate, but I’m not wired that way. Oh sure, I can make it happen if I need to, but music is what drives me, fuels my imagination. It gives me energy. I’m very fortunate, because Brother is a huge fan of Spotify and upgraded to a family plan about a year ago. Thus Parents and I are able to listen to music ad-free and create tons of playlists and radio stations. I have fallen in love with those features, let me tell you. Color me spoiled.

When I’m getting ready in the morning or sitting down to write something, I usually have Spotify up and running on either my computer or my phone. (Seriously, what did we ever do without technology?) I kept hearing these songs that I liked on one particular radio station that I had created, and every time I looked, I laughed because the name of the artist that I kept liking was “Sizzle Bird.”

Yup, that’s the name all right. However, don’t let his title fool you. If you’re looking for a mellow Lindsey Stirling alternate, Sizzle Bird is your man. Same electronic feel, with violin and sometimes piano overtones. While Stirling has been one of my favorite musicians for a while, it’s nice to hear something new, and I dare say that Sizzle might just give Stirling a run for her money in my book.

If you want to know what I mean, check him out here. My personal favorites so far are Imagine and Warm Heart. I’m stupidly excited about it. Of course, I’m always excited about new music of any sort. I’ll come back later with the two other new-to-me bands that I’ve recently discovered that have just blown me away with their abilities. However, they’re just about as polar opposite of this as you can get, so I’ll let them have a post all of their own. Just keeping the mood the same here, you know.

And now if you’ll excuse me, there are very clearly several songs of his that I’ve never heard, so I’d best correct that.

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Dark EnergyDark Energy by Robison Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Parental guide: Minor swearing, some violence, nothing explicit.

Holy moly, this book was SO GOOD. It’s a fairly quickly read, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Alice is one of the best protagonists that I’ve read about in a loooong time, and I felt that the author did a fantastic job of writing from a female perspective. Also? I loved the fact that she had such a great relationship with her father. I feel like too many times in YA literature, the parents are either absent for one reason or another, or they’re portrayed as idiots. All parents were teenagers at one point in time or another, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that some of them remember what it’s like. Alice’s father was a good mixture of protective and supportive, which made their interactions that much more fun.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a quick sci-fi, give this one a chance. I’m off to go check out some of the author’s other books now, don’t mind me.

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For those of us involved in an art form, be it writing, drawing, painting, photography, music, etc., we are always perfecting our craft. I think that’s part of what entices us about these arts in the first place. We are always learning and always growing. There’s really no limitations to what we can achieve if we practice and work hard.

As an author, I can already see how much my writing style has changed over the years. I’ve made wonderful connections and good friends since I first published Prince of Light. Back then, I thought getting an agent and a publisher would be a snap. (Yes, I was that naive.) After getting nothing but rejections on all of my query letters for PoL, I felt pretty discouraged. That’s something I think we’ve all experienced: the rejection pile.

It’s a long, hard road to traditional publishing. While some small presses will allow for unsolicited queries to be sent, the major publishing houses (i.e. Random House, Scholastic, Penguin, etc.) require all of their “pitches” to come straight from a literary agent. So once you’ve written that super special awesome book and polished it to the best of your ability, you need to write and even more super special awesome query letter.

I’m pretty sure that the query letter is harder to write than the book itself. There are several amazing resources available to give you an idea of what agents are looking for in a query. Two of my favorite sites are Query Shark (written by an actual agent) and Agent Query Connect. Query Shark is a blog with multiple examples of both good and not-so-good queries. I found it extremely helpful in giving a lot of examples of what agents are looking for.

Agent Query Connect allows you to talk directly with other authors to get their feedback on your query, synopsis, first 250 words, etc. There are both published and non-published writers there, so you really get a broad spectrum of opinions. I had some great feedback when I was finishing up the query for my current standalone YA story. (Just a side note, AQC’s primary site, Agent Query, is a pretty good database of agents and publishers. You can search by genre to see which agents are interested in your specific story.)

The other day I went through a bunch of my original emails to agents, when I first tried to query Prince of Light. For some of them I literally wanted to crawl in a hole and die of embarrassment. For others, I just shook my head.

So just for fun, I decided to post one of my (not quite as humiliating) early query letters and critique it myself, based on what I’ve learned over the years. Not only can I give you a bit of a laugh, but hopefully this will give you a little inspiration and confidence in your own projects. At the time I couldn’t understand why no agent was interested. Now, I certainly do.

Here’s the original query I sent, italicized for better readability:

Dear Agent,

Celestyn: Master of every weapon he touches. Heir to the throne of the elven kingdom. Destroyer of any who dare get in his way. Alone for all eternity.

Seventeen-year-old Evanthe finds herself held prisoner in an unknown castle after an attack on her village renders her homeless. When the first living thing she meets is an imposing half-dragon, half-man beast, her only thoughts are how she can stay alive long enough to find her family. Strange and often frightening creatures seem to be around every corner (which actually makes having a dragon-man beast for a bodyguard come in rather handy). She is befriended by the handsome young mage, Delanor, knowing only that he is keeping her hidden from a dark presence that is shadowing her every movement. When she catches a glimpse of the man that is supposed to be so deadly to her, however, she finds her heart is full of conflict, for she is being sought after by the rogue elfin prince, Celestyn.

And he is by far the most beautiful being that she has ever laid eyes on.

Though she is frightened by his cold cruelty, Evanthe finds it very difficult to resist the ethereal, god-like prince. She will eventually have to choose between the two men that she has come to love and, even worse, between the few fellow humans that have also crossed into the land and the newly-made friends she has grown to care for.

PRINCE OF LIGHT is every fangirl’s dream book, containing everything from a hot elf and shapeshifters of every kind to battle scenes that would send even Percy Jackson into hiding. (Not to mention a love triangle worthy of any Twilight fan.) This medieval fantasy is complete at approximately 89,000 words in length.

While I have never had any of my works formally published, my short story entitled “Range of Vision” won an honorable mention at the 2009 Nature of Words Writing Competition and is included in their anthology. I also worked at a public library for six years, primarily with teens, which allowed me to be immersed in young adult literary fiction. I feel that PRINCE OF LIGHT would be a great addition to any young adult publisher based on the feedback that I’ve already received from both teens and adults alike.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Yup. That was it. Now allow me to critique my own work, based on what I’ve since learned about the industry. My comments are in red:

Dear Agent,
(Just as a side note, always personalize your query letter. This is just an example, so I didn’t put an actual name, but in a real letter definitely use an agent’s name and make sure you spell it right. Also? Only send one letter per agent. Don’t group send several agents at once; they really don’t like that.)

Celestyn: Master of every weapon he touches. Heir to the throne of the elven kingdom. Destroyer of any who dare get in his way. Alone for all eternity.
Ooooookay, problems right from the get-go. This doesn’t really work as a hook for several reasons. For one, it’s super generic and a little cliché. Secondly, the story isn’t even written from Celestyn’s point of view, so none of this matters. Always start your query letter with a good hook, usually just one or two sentences, that will immediately grab the agent’s attention.

Seventeen-year-old Evanthe finds herself held prisoner in an unknown castle after an attack on her village renders her homeless. When the first living thing she meets is an imposing half-dragon, half-man beast, her only thoughts are how she can stay alive long enough to find her family. Strange and often frightening creatures seem to be around every corner (which actually makes having a dragon-man beast for a bodyguard come in rather handy). She is befriended by the handsome young mage, Delanor, knowing only that he is keeping her hidden from a dark presence that is shadowing her every movement. When she catches a glimpse of the man that is supposed to be so deadly to her, however, she finds her heart is full of conflict, for she is being sought after by the rogue elfin prince, Celestyn.
This is character soup. Only main characters need to be introduced, and even then it should be kept to a minimum. Who is the main character? What are her goals? What stands in her way? None of that is really answered with this paragraph. The voice isn’t necessarily horrible, but it’s certainly not as strong as it could be.

And he is by far the most beautiful being that she has ever laid eyes on.
While perhaps an interesting factoid, this doesn’t actually bring about a conflict, so it’s kind of pointless.

Though she is frightened by his cold cruelty, Evanthe finds it very difficult to resist the ethereal, god-like (Ugh, why so many adjectives?) prince. She will eventually have to choose between the two men that she has come to love and, even worse, between the few fellow humans that have also crossed into the land and the newly-made friends she has grown to care for.
Too much description, not enough plot. And again, there isn’t any conflict until it’s mentioned that there are other humans in this world.

PRINCE OF LIGHT is every fangirl’s dream book, containing everything from a hot elf and shapeshifters of every kind to battle scenes that would send even Percy Jackson into hiding. No. Just…no. (Not to mention a love triangle worthy of any Twilight fan.) SWEET BABYBACK RIBS, NO. I am truly ashamed that I sent this to agents. And that I thought it was good. This medieval fantasy is complete at approximately 89,000 words in length.
All the final line should say is “PRINCE OF LIGHT is a young adult medieval fantasy complete at 89,000.” If you have some comp titles, that’s fine, but it’s not a requirement. Also, always round up or down your word count when writing a query, and do capitalize the title for this part of the letter. At least I got that part…

While I have never had any of my works formally published, my short story entitled “Range of Vision” won an honorable mention at the 2009 Nature of Words Writing Competition and is included in their anthology. I also worked at a public library for six years, primarily with teens, which allowed me to be immersed in young adult literary fiction. I feel that PRINCE OF LIGHT would be a great addition to any young adult publisher based on the feedback that I’ve already received from both teens and adults alike.
Honestly, I didn’t include any of this information when I sent out the queries for my newest project because none of it matters. Unless you have a previously published work, and sorry, most self-published books don’t count, just leave out any credentials. (I’ve been told the exception to self-published books is if you’ve sold 100,000 copies or more. But that’s SOLD, not just downloads.) If you have a lot of short stories published or the like, that seems to be semi-okay to send along, but in that case it seems to depend on the agent and their personal preferences.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.
I think this is pretty much the only line that I got halfway right.

So there you have it. And as I mentioned, this is my so-called “improved” version. It’s just so…bad. Not because the writing is bad, because structurally it’s pretty sound, but because I didn’t know the business. Agents receive literally hundreds of query letters a day, so it is absolutely vital that you make your story stand out from the slush pile.

It’s helped to see how far I’ve come, which is why I sometimes go back and view my earlier writings. As I continue to work on book two in the Prince of Light series, I already have an idea for the description, which is light years ahead of where I was when I finished book one. (And yes, that book really will get finished at some point. I promise.)

To my fellow writers, I have to encourage you to NEVER GIVE UP. Your first book may never get published, traditionally or indie. That’s okay. Keep writing and keep reading. If this is your passion and it’s what you know you want to do, learn all that you can and just keep going. You will improve.

Best of luck!

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Just a tad bit past nearly forever ago, a friend of mine tagged me on Facebook with a fun meme. I thought it sounded great and started it…and then I became distracted and only recently discovered the half-finished product. Whatever the case, I have since completed my answers and thought it might make for an interesting blog post. These are the authors and books that inspired my own writing.

10 Books That Stayed With Me:

1.) The Bible – It may not be obvious to all, but this book has been the number one thing that has changed my life and my perspective over the years. I have indeed read it cover to cover and various translations, and every time that I read its passages I get something new from it.

2.) Beverly Cleary series – I’m kind fudging on this one, because it’s way too hard to narrow down which specific Cleary books spoke to me most. I grew up reading about Beezus and Ramona, Ralph S. Mouse and all the rest. They were instrumental in cultivating my passion for the written word, even in grade school.

3.) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – One of my best memories is the year that my mother read the story of Tom Sawyer to me while I ate breakfast every morning. I’ll confess that I was really hesitant to this at first, but Mom insisted and I am very glad she did. I got so caught up in the story that I quickly forgot why I hadn’t wanted to hear it in the first place.

4.) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – I read this one while I was in high school for a book report. Basically I just needed to choose something from the list that the teacher gave us. I picked it at random, thinking that the title sounded interesting, and discovered an amazing world. This story was part of what really piqued my interest in the fantasy genre as a whole. It opened up a whole different set of doors, as far as reading went.

5.) The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis – Probably not much surprise here either, but this is another series that I’ve always adored. I read The Silver Chair in high school (another book report project that turned out very well for me). While The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has probably remained my favorite of the series, The Silver Chair and The Last Battle are right up there.

6.) Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer – This still remains one of my all-time favorite YA series. I loved Colfer’s twist to both modern and ancient fairy tales, and the storyline, while not always what I expected, was fantastic. Great character development, great villains…in fact it’s been long enough that I’m probably due for a re-read.

7.) Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – Sanderson is a semi-new author to me, but so far I have loved each book that I’ve tried. This was the first story that I read of his, which also happened to be his first attempt at YA, and it’s difficult to pinpoint just why it stuck with me so much. I tend to be very character driven when it comes to movies and books, so all I can figure is that I loved the character of Steelheart so much it wedged in my brain and wouldn’t let go. Whatever the case, this was one of my favorite books of the year. And so far, the rest of the series hasn’t disappointed either.

8.) The Oath by Frank Peretti – It’s been a looooong time since I last read this one, but it was another book that always stuck with me. I originally read it in high school and loved it. This was the first book of Peretti’s that I had read, and while it was a little slow in the middle, the primary storyline kept a quick pace and kept my attention through it all. Not your typical dragon story, but still a well-crafted plot for an author of his particular genre. As a “Christian author,” he pushed boundaries with this book and might have even made people a little uncomfortable. Not necessarily a bad thing, in this case.

9.) The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson – Yes, he gets to be on my list twice because he’s just that amazing. I won’t lie, The Way of Kings is definitely a commitment at nearly 400,000 words, but I can’t recommend it highly enough for those who love epic fantasy. The worldbuilding, the characters…all of it is just too amazing for words. It has become one of my all-time favorite stories ever. (It was one of the few books where I literally read the last sentence and wanted to go right back to the beginning and read it again because I loved it so much.) And Words of Radiance, the sequel, is just as fantastic as the first.

10.) The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis – This was the first non-fiction work of Lewis that I read, again while in high school, but it’s always stuck with me. Lewis really stepped outside the box of his time by writing this book, and it made you really think about your prayer life and the spiritual battles that continuously rage on everywhere. While definitely an older book, I can still recommend it. (Actually, it’s another one I need to re-read…)

So there you have it. This is a basic glimpse of my all-time favorite books and authors, and though many others have made impressions with me, these are the ones that I will never forget.

What are your top ten faves?

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The Rule of Thoughts (The Mortality Doctrine, #2)The Rule of Thoughts by James Dashner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While several things were resolved (somewhat) in this book, I felt that it dragged in the middle just a bit. I realize that Michael had to cope with a lot since the revelation of the previous book, but that also slowed the story a little bit. Thus why it took me so long to finish in the first place.

It picked up more towards the end, but that semi-cliffhanger at the end told me there is definitely still more to come. However, it looks very promising and I enjoyed the twists in the storyline. Just when we think we’ve figured out what might be going on, Dashner throws another wrench into the machine.

All in all, it was another enjoyable ride and I look forward to finishing the series.

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