Monday, August 24, 2009

10 years an Austinite: From the capital of corn to the live music capital

It's hard to believe, but this week marks ten years that my family and I have lived in Austin, Texas. It took forever for me to refer to myself as a Texan, because I was a proud Iowan. As far as I was concerned, I only lived in Texas, temporarily. I would return to Iowa someday.

My wife and I, and my then 16-year-old daughter, moved to Austin in late August of 1999 from Des Moines. On the day we left, the weather had been unusually cool, but once we hit Texas, temperatures skyrocketed to something crazy like 110. I remember feeling like I was going to smother under the weight of the sun. My skin burned, and I was astonished by the number of people who were actually outside jogging. My shirts were perpetually damp from sweat, and I gave up on the idea of ever smelling fresh again. No amount of antiperspirant was a match for Texas heat.

Those first few years in Austin were the most exciting time of my life. Everything was so new — new job, new apartment, new people. Dishwasher! The apartment we moved into was brand-spanking new and it had a dishwasher. It was the first time in my life I'd ever had such a convenience. There were new places to eat, new stores to shop, new parks to explore. Every day served up a new adventure.

We've been here ten years now, and we love Austin today the same as the first day we move here. I can say it now, "I'm Texan."

For the next week or so, I plan to write about my journey to Austin. What brought my family from the corn capital of the world to the live music capital? What were our highlights over the past ten years? The low points? And what's on the road ahead?

Pictured: I tried to find the perfect picture to post, one of my wife and family when we first moved to Austin, but I couldn't find one. The picture above is of me and two of my three brothers on the day before I moved to Austin, at a going-away party given by my extended family.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cover ideas

For the most part, I'm finished with interior illustrations for She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story. Some paintings might could use a bit of tweaking, but nothing very time consuming. I hope.

At this point the editor and art director, and I are discussing ideas for the cover. And it's tricky. The story itself is quiet, as are most of the interior illustrations. But they would like a lively cover. So I'm going to kick around a few ideas over the next week, inbetween my other projects (snagged a good one yesterday).

Now here's the funny part. I wasn't happy with two of the interior illustrations. In fact, I had planned to redo them but ran out of time. With one spot I kinda went over-the-top with my color choices, and I wanted to tone down the palette. With the other spread I wasn't sure what to do, but I felt like something was wrong.

But guess what? The spread I wanted to throw out is my art director's favorite. And the spread with the wild colors is my editor's favorite — go figure. In fact they like the colorful spread so much, they want me to use a similar palette on the cover.

Art is so subjective, there's really no right or wrong. Just do it and have fun.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Huge contrast

This has been my work area the past few days while I revise my picture book biography, unstaged (notice Tweetdeck on my computer screen, and excuse the strawberry decor).

This is my typical work space. As I sat down to work today, I couldn't help but notice the contrast.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Wearing my writer's cap

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been acting more like a writer than an artist. While last week I prepared for the AAW workshop, this week my focus has been on revisions for Bill, a picture book biography which will publish with Lee & Low Books next fall. I’m having a ball revising, but I’m also finding it very tricky.

It’s been almost four years since my editor offered me the opportunity to revise the manuscript for publication, and more than two years since it was actually acquired. It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since the last revision. In all honesty, other than When’s this book ever gonna publish? I haven’t thought about it much. Looking at it now is almost like looking at it for the first time. For instance, I found myself getting all salty with my editor, thinking she had added her own phrases to the manuscript. Those words are too good to be mine, I thought. But looking closer at past versions, I realized the words were mine. Somewhere around revision 26, I forgot.

Seeing the manuscript fresh has helped me to see problems I might otherwise have not. But I have to be very careful when making changes – even little ones. The story is nonfiction. My word choices were made very carefully, based on research. So each time I make a change, I have to go back to my research to double-check that I’m not messing up history. What I’ve discovered is that, although one word or phrase might sound or flow better, another word or phrase might suggest something inaccurate.

In addition, the illustrator for the book and the editor have a few questions. The answers will affect the art. Problem is, finding these answers haven't been easy because my story involves a slave. Slaves were considered property, like a horse or a mule, and the census didn't go knocking door-to-door counting mules — or Black people, for that matter.

It's been interesting swapping roles, artist to author. But I've learned that I love telling stories with words as much as I do with paint.

Now, it's back to the drawing board to the manuscript for me.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Awesome Austin Writers workshop, '09

Awesome Austin Writers, The Outsiders, top row: Brian Yansky, Donna Bowman Bratton, Patrick Swayze Bottom row: Shana Burg, Debbie Gonzales, Don Tate

I'm pumped! Yesterday I attended the Awesome Austin Writers workshop, along with 20 other published and near-published children's and YA authors. The event was hosted in the beautiful home of Austin SCBWI founder Meredith Davis (think: Beverly Hills meets Lake Austin).

The day-long critique session kicked off with a tasty breakfast, but then it was down to business. We split up into four groups of five people. My group: The Outsiders. There were also Frogs and Toads, Wild Things and Ramonas! Cool? I'm sorry I don't have pictures to post. I carried my camera with me but didn't feel comfortable snapping pictures, everyone knowing they'd end up right here on my blog.

Two months before the workshop, each writer submitted 10 pages of a work in progress and each team was given copies. We spent almost an hour critiquing each person's work. It was a definite growing experience for me because I was forced to read different genres that, typically, I avoid. Like sci-fi. If a book even looks sci-fi I won't pick it up. But Brian submitted a sci-fi manuscript, and I read it and enjoyed it. I even realized one idea I've been kicking around might be considered sci-fi.

Between critiques we had group discussions on various topics ranging from social networking to speaking events -- when and when not give free appearances.

As far as I could recall, I was the only art-guy-author there. But I felt welcomed, and I value the feedback I received.

I submitted a 1,200 word picture book biography, which included an authors note and an afterward. Without giving away my story, here's what I learned:

My subject has a compelling story that can be told from many angles. Unfortunately, I chose every angle. I'll need to focus a bit.

Although most biographies are told in chronological order, I don't have to begin telling my story at the beginning.

I'm a "but" man, apparently. I used the word "but" 16 times in a 1,200 word manuscript. I'll need to work on that.

Even though I don't know how it smelled or felt or tasted in the 1800s, I can assume it smelled and felt and tasted the same as it does today. I need to use more sensory details to bring the story alive.

I saved the passion for my afterward. Everyone seemed moved by my authors note and the afterward. So I'll need to figure a way to weave in some of that passion into the story itself.

The day ended with a first-page reading. Most everyone submitted one half of the first page of a work in progress, which was read out loud. Originally I'd planned to submit a humorous, rhyming picture book I've been working on. But I shied away from that, knowing most other submissions would be YA or middle-grade chapter books. I'm glad I made that decision.

At the last minute, I dug out one particular picture book manuscript that I really, really love, but hasn't sold yet after two years. I think it's a story that would have sold with no problem a few years ago. But things have changed. So I decided to rewrite it as a chapter book (ages 4-5-6). I stayed up late the night before rewriting the first page. And everyone laughed! In all the right places! It was great!