Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pulling Narrative Thread

How can you take a small idea and turn it into an entire story? 

When I was in college, I had a writing instructor that said "you can write anything if you know how to pull the proper thread." It took me years of writing bad stories to understand what she meant.

We are constantly inundated with narrative in our culture, actually every culture, and because of that most of us have access to an intuitive sense of story. For example, if I tell you that I'm working on a love story about a man and a woman who reunite after five years you will immediately assume that in the end of the story those two will wind up together. Did you also assume that they would be separated at some point in the story? What about difficulties between them, do you think they had them or did they get along splendid from the get go?

These assumptions are the "thread" that you as a writer can pull to reveal more about your story and how it wants to be constructed. Yes, stories have a life of their own and I am a believer that the concept behind the story has a way that it naturally wants to be expressed. (Michelangelo talked of how he never actually sculpted anything, he simply revealed the sculpture that was within the stone to begin with.)

By pulling threads, or rather asking questions about your concept, you can quickly and easily work through the entire structure of the piece. Questions lead to other questions and eventually you will have followed enough thread to find the entire yarn (hyuck hyuck hyuck.)

Going back to the example of the love story, lets ask ourselves why the couple was separated in the first place. Remember that there's no wrong answers, only decisions that feel more right than others. Lets say it was because of a sailing accident and the woman thought that her love had been lost at sea. Ok, kind of cheesy, but lets run with it. If a sailing accident happened, then we know that the man sails. Does the woman also sail? Yes. Okay! Is that how they met? Yes! Okay, then we know that we can have a scene early in the story where the two love birds meet over sailing. Perhaps the man teaches the woman how to sail. She was a sheltered upper class woman after all and he was a ruffian from the docks. 

See where I'm going? I'm having too much fun so let's take this all the way. If he taught her how to sail then that becomes her "superpower." Most protagonists have something about them that makes them special so that they can overcome their challenges. Luke had his light-saber while captain Kirk had his infallible gambling skill/decision making. So this woman learned how to sail. Her friends and family all told her that her love had died at sea. The coast guard had given up the search. No one thought that he had survived. No one, except our heroine. Her connection to this man told her that he was still alive. So she uses the skills that he taught her to sail out to sea and find her lost love. And, after years of searching, the man never giving up hope, who is it that sails to his rescue? The love of his life of course!

And save, print, submit. All we need is a title . . . How about Love Tide . . . Maybe we'll save title creation for another post . . .

What kind of stories can you come up with?
What kind of stories will you create?
How about asking your children for ideas? They tend to find the best threads . . .

All my love,
A. J. Cosmo

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Duckfish Cork Floaters (Craft Project)

With summer here, I got to thinking about water and that reminded me of one of my favorite childhood crafts: cork floaters!

Materials you will need:
  • a large cork topper (ask your parents)
  • safety scissors (parents)
  • a thumbtack (maybe you should do this with your parents)
  • crayons
  • cardboard
Have a parent or a guardian cut the cork topper in half (you could make two separate floaters out of one cork.)

Place the cork half flat on a surface and use your scissors to carve out a slot on the top of the cork. (You can also have an adult carve out the slot by using a knife.) The slot should be thin enough to hold paper snug.

Take your cardboard and draw the outline of the creature that you want to create. Here I made my good friend Duckfish. Make sure that at the bottom of the creature you create a bit that sticks out.

Use the crayons to color the entire surface.  Make sure to be thorough, the wax in the crayons will waterproof your creature!

Insert that bit of cardboard into the slit you cut in the cork.

Take your thumbtack and attach it to the underside of the cork. This will weigh the floater down in the water so that it doesn't roll.

Wait . . . something is wrong . . .

Sometimes whenever you try something new it doesn't work out the way that you planned. That's ok! We learn from our mistakes and try again until we figure it out. In this case, the duckfish was too large for what the cork could support. So I made another, smaller, Duckfish.

Aww, he's still cute! Time to go for a swim little guy . . .

Awesome! Here he is enjoying my bird bath. And then getting blown into the corner by the wind . . .

What is a Duckfish anyway? Who cares! 

What kind of things will you create with your children? Share them @ajcosmokids!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sculpting a Monster (Craft Project)

Hello everyone!

Sculpture can be a great way to spark the imagination, engage thinking, and relax after a stressful day. Every child loves Play-Doh, but if you'd like something a little more permanent, I'd recommend Sculpey.

Sculpey is a plastic modeling clay that you can bake in the oven to harden. It's extremely soft and maleable and also relatively cheap. It normally comes in white but you can also purchase color blocks like the ones above. (Use a mat or work on an old table, the colors can stain!)

What am I making? An Aarghmouth of course! This little guy is from one of my favorite books Monsters A to Z. He lives behind things and likes to jump out and scare people.

So how do you go about sculpting something like this? Well you start with a base, or in this case the feet . . .

When sculpting you always go from simple shapes to complex ones. Don't get frustrated if it doesn't look like what it should be immediately, you can always go back and mold it later! Work from bottom to top, that way the sculpture will be balanced when you're done.

I placed the chin and then cut in to the feet to carve them out. They look so cute!

I used the red clay to create the back of the mouth and then covered it with a thin layer of orange (I was running out of orange already!) Not only do you want to work bottom to top, you also want to work inside to out, so we have to create the mouth cavity first. Now on to the teeth!

I inserted the teeth and then covered it with a wedge of orange to create the top of the jaw. Now it gets tricky. One of the hardest things to do in sculpture is free floating appendages. The trick is to make the base sturdy and the extension delicate.

I made the hand separately just by using a ball and three rolls. I attached the arm by spreading the Sculpy over itself. As long as you mush together all of the sides, the piece should bond together.
You can press in to the center of your sculpture to get it to balance, but this one was being tricky. So I had to improvise . . .

I added a tail. Sometimes you have to take liberties in order to make a project work. Be fearless! Now for the eyes . . .

Make sure the base is secure and remember your process. Everything takes little steps and as long as you think things through, you will have success!
I mixed yellow with red to get the pink and then inserted the uvula and tongues after molding them. All it took to attach them was pressing them in.
Use a small round or flat object to smooth out fingerprints and places where you bonded the Sculpy. (I used a cuticle pusher!) Other household tools include toothpicks and spoons.

Voila! Now it's time to bake :)
(Definitely need parental supervision for this!)
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Then bake the Sculpey for 15 minutes per 1/4 inch thickness. This little guy is about one inch thick, so I set the timer for 60 minutes.
Poor fella. He looks terrified! Sculpy can burn so it's importnat to watch the time. It also has a distinct smell when it's done, sort of a woody plastic smell. When the smell turns bad, like a burned pizza, remove it quickly!

What kind of things will your children create? Send me pictures of your creations @ajcosmokids and I'll post them!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Painting in Photoshop

Hello again! I'm working on a new book. I'm not going to say what, but it might have something to do with this one. . .

I use many different techniques to illustrate my books, but for today I wanted to demonstrate one that has its heritage in the great procedural painters of the early renaissance, such as those used by Jan Van Eyck. Now this is photoshop and children's books so the technique is a bit simplified, but if you wanted to you could completely re-create any of the old techniques. So here goes:

You start with a simple black and white drawing of the illustration using varying opacities for your brush. I use a pressure tablet, but you could also just select different opacities by hitting any of the numbers at the top of the keyboard (3 gives you %30, 5 gives you %50, etc.) Use a simple round brush with or without feathering for this.

Make sure that you refine the outline to the best of your ability. Any sort of extra strokes, escpecially white strokes, will show up in the next step. If you are publishing to black and white devices this technique ensures that your illustrations will still be legible on those readers!

Once you have the tone right, create a new layer and set it to Multiply in the Layer Styles pulldown tab. Multiply takes the color you paint and multiplies it by the tone of the color below it. If you use color on color you'll get really vivid dark colors. However, if you use it on black and white you get a flat color with smooth tone. Like this:
There are only four colors used above: red, blue, yellow, and brown. (Also realized that I misspelled Shakespeare here, no matter though, I can go to the previous layer and fix that!) You can mix up the colors and blend them to create more interesting values such as the brown-red in the lower left corner of the book. But this isn't finished, it still needs some tweaking to "feel" like a finished picture.

Add another layer but leave the style normal. This will be your color layer and you will paint directly on top of the other two to polish the image that you've created. Use high opacity color with small brush sizes. This will help create sharp edges and spaces where it feels like more detail then there actually is. When you're done, you should have something like this:

Van Eyck and others used two additional steps to achieve their look. After the black and white layer they would glaze the canvas with raw umber and then apply straight black and white to the "cold" areas of the color. Then they would apply the final color using glazes of oil paint and thinner. The result would be a gorgeous and deep color that would give off the warmth and depth of life. You can read more about this technique here. Interestingly enough, part of the reason the painters developed this technique was to conserve paint, colors such as purple, red, and blue were expensive!

I hope this has been informative. As always if you have any questions about this or anything else relating to your work please say hello on twitter @ajcosmokids

Happy painting!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Revising a Cover

Yesterday I talked about what makes a good cover and maybe while reading you may have checked out my Book List and said to yourself "hey, follow your own advice!" Well nothing is perfect, at least not on the first try, so for today I thought it would be good to take a cover that needs some work and go through improving it.

An Alien in the City is one of my more recent books. I really like the story and I think kids will like it, but something is wrong with it and I think it might be the cover. So let's look at what we have here:

So for starters I used an image from inside of the book for the cover illustration. Here it is:

Now for an image this is fine and I actually like it quiet a bit, but when I gave it the cover treatment I enlarged the image and brightened it, so it ended up emphasizing some of the less flattering parts of the illustration (mainly the male figure on the right.) I'm also not keen on the font selection. It says alien but it sort of gets lost in the detail of the background. So what can we do to fix this? What if we isolated the image with some color bars, like the way some of the old dime novel covers looked.

Look at that! Already we have more focus on the alien and the distraction in the background in gone. Also the scrunching of the space makes it feel claustrophobic and you get the sense that our hero is trapped in a pretty bad situation. I'm not totally sold on the color black though, seems too filmic, how about something dark but maybe more, I don't know, blue? (Tip: If you're using an image for your cover it helps to use colors that are already present in the image. This makes the design feel more cohesive. Use the eye dropper tool in Photoshop to find the colors that are in your image.)

Hmm, getting better, but this is supposed to be a children's book and this looks like the start of an academic "how to" manual. Let's brighten it up!

There we go! I pulled the color from the alien's eye. It makes his eyes sparkle and brightens up the whole cover. Maybe we have the color that we want, maybe we don't, but let's move on to putting text on the design and then see if we like it. For the font I'm going to stick with Cooper std. for the moment, it's kind of my signature font.

Oh my. Well At least the font is easy to read. . . sort of. I think the font works well for the name, but not  for the title. Maybe we should try that alien font again, it wasn't that bad after all, right? And maybe play with the colors a bit and see if we can't pull it all together better.

Ok, I like where this is going. The text feels natural now and removing the black outline really helped make the piece look more professional. I pulled the color from his eyes again, which is making it look cohesive. I just think that we need to do something with the spacing and arrangement of the title. (remember to use the rulers and guide lines in photoshop to help line up your text.) Maybe something stacked and off center...

What a difference! I let the Y in City break the marquee and hang into the image as a way to lead the eye down and around. I also added drop shadows to bring out the letter. It was just a touch, but those little touches really make a difference in the end product. I think this cover is just about done, but it's still missing something. Also there's one other issue. If you read the previous post you would know that the Amazon image compression software hates flat colors. So to avoid that, let's just add a bit of a gradient to the blue bars.

And voila! A little touch of color to brighten things up and make it shine!

I hope you enjoyed seeing my process and have a better understanding of cover design and self-critique. Covers are just another aspect of the hundreds of little decisions that make up being a self-published author. The great thing about doing it digitally though, is that you can come back and revise as much as you want. Don't be afraid to revisit your old material and bring new life to them. (You can even call them second editions!) 

Please feel free to tweet me any questions or comments you have. Tell me what you think of the cover and maybe even share some of your own. I'd love to see them!

All the best,
A.J. Cosmo

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On Book Covers

I was asked recently by a good friend of mine to discuss book covers and I thought it would be good to share what I have learned while working with Amazon and the Kindle.

If you are self publishing, then you will have to either hire out the cover to an artist or create the design yourself. A good cover should cost anywhere from $50 to $200 depending on who you choose to work with. They should be willing to do revisions with you, accept payments in installments, and understand your needs and goals as a writer. You can find cover artists by doing a web search or by posting a wanted ad on Reddit in either Writing (asking for people to recommend a cover artist) or For Hire (tagging your post as [hiring] Cover Artist and then posting a bit about your rate.) There's also Fiver which will charge $5 for a simple cover, but you will most likely end up with something that looks like a template.

Covers should advertise and allude to the content of the book without being too on the nose or too abstract. Remember that print books, which are objects, can do things with covers that eBooks can't. "Puzzle" covers where you have to pick the cover up and inspect it to find meaning, optical illusion covers, bold wording covers, and covers that are %90 author name, are not effective on the eBook platform.

One of the best ways to communicate the contents of the book is through the font that you choose for the title itself. Photoshop has tons of fonts by default and there are plenty more available for free online. The letters themselves should evoke a feeling. I use Cooper Standard for most of my titles and A. J. Cosmo because the font communicates softness and whimsy. I want to comfort and dazzle children and parents. Be sure and line up your text as well. You want visual symmetry. Use the guide tools in your photo editing software and be picky about getting it all to line up and look even. Make the font big enough that you can read it from a distance. Set the viewer at %50 and walk to the other end of the room. You should still be able to read it legibly. Do it again for %25. You should still be able to read it.

Most of the time people will only be viewing the thumbnail of the book either in their digital library or on the landing page for the item. You actually have to work on the Kindle to get the cover to come up full screen. So be creative and eye catching, but not too clever. Amazon also compresses images that are uploaded to it. Just from experience, the compression software they use doesn't handle flat color well, particularly red, and this causes digital artifact "noise" to appear on your cover. A solution to this, oddly, is to add more texture to your background. Play around and don't settle for something sub-optimal.

You ideally want to upload a .tiff that is twice the size of the default cover size. Amazon resizes images uploaded to eBooks down to 600x800 pixels. So for covers I usually make them 1200x1600. Your image will still be compressed down, but it will look crisper since the software on their end had more information to work with. Also note that you can change the shape of your cover by uploading a different proportion of pixels. Dimensions like 800x600 will give you a landscape oriented cover.

Covers can be tricky and there are way more tips and tricks to share. If you have any specific questions I'd love to help. Just tweet me @ajcosmokids and I will be happy to help you in any way that I can.

Tomorrow, I'm going to be going through a step by step example of "fixing" a cover that you have already created. We will look at my book An Alien in the City, critique it, and see if there's something we can do to improve it.

Till then,
All my best wishes,
A. J. Cosmo