Friday, May 29, 2020

The Case of the Plastic Rings from the Artist's Perception

              Every children's book requires an illustrator to bring the author's words to life. The Case of the Plastic Rings - The Adventures of Planetman has an illustrator with remarkable talent: Thomas Deisboeck .  Tom graciously agreed to let me interview him. My questions are in black, and Tom's answers are in blue.

      How did/does your history and home background affect your illustration work?

            I was born in Munich, Germany, and grew up with comics of the Franco-Belgian tradition, Asterix, Tintin, Spirou etc. These books were not only drawn very well, the story arches masterfully wove a bit of history and plenty of adventures together, and all of it PG. Mind you, the 1970s were a pre-personal computer area, growing up without 24/7 social media on an ever-present web - which clearly dates me – but that meant we read books, and comics, and had time & space to let our fantasy fly. A well-developed imagination is an absolutely crucial asset for an illustrator (and anyone else, really, regardless of age and profession).  

             Tell us something about your educational background that made you a better, or more caring, artist/illustrator.

           I went to both Medical School (in Germany) and then business school (in the US) which depending who you talk to is either a testimony of a quest for a broad education or a thorough lack of focus. Artistically, I am largely self-taught, but I took online classes with Charles Zembillas at the Animation Academy in Burbank and John Byrne at the London Art College. Charles is a friend and a Yoda-type influence. He has the uncanny ability to be super supportive while he readily improves with ‘annoying’ ease every single one of my character designs and cartoons. The internet has moved the power from studios and agencies to the creatives with artist-owned content being published non-stop at low or no costs which was not an option just a few years ago. The byproduct is that there is so much great art at sites like Behance, Deviant and even Pinterest that it's humbling. I recommend whenever you think you got a piece perfectly right and feel the urge to kick back for a few min, take a quick look at Pinterest drawing pins and it brings you down to earth quickly.

             Please share your hobbies, interests, or activities with us, you know the ones for during your leisure time (laugh), if you have any.

            First off, I do a fair amount of work because I have 2 other careers in parallel (medical scientist and entrepreneur/consultant/investor). That being said, I like to spend time with family and a few good friends wherever they are. Traveling with family has always been one of my absolute favorites – from Alaska to Europe to Africa, any place in the Caribbean – life is short, so nothing is a better ‘investment’ than making unforgettable memories together. I enjoy watching “old” movies, reading comics and art books, try to keep up with the best magazine ever – The Economist, enjoy kayaking on a quiet lake and walking our dog. I love to collect art – old Disney drawings or cool comic pencil layouts from (more talented) artist friends that work for Marvel or DC. 

              Illustrators/artists are often asked when they started illustrating or what triggered their interest in art. I’d like to know that, too, but I would especially like to know what keeps you illustrating.

         I loved watching Disney’s pictures, particularly those from the Golden Age of Animation, i.e. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia; Walt’s 9 Old Master Animators are the Gods, unrivaled, no electronics available at the time, just pure skill. I started to draw in High School, then dropped it for 30 years and restarted 10+ years ago when I went on a plane to LA to meet with Charles. It was and is an outlet for my sense of humor and emotional expression. What keeps me drawing? – well, both, the constant thrill to push the boundaries of my skill and try to get better, and the enjoyment of every now and then getting it (almost) right.

              How do you manage to draw/illustrate and have time for relationships?

             Finding quality time to sit down and draw is always a challenge because there are so many demands on anyone’s time these days. Deadlines are not always helpful; while they aid in focusing attention, they cannot force the production of an artistic masterpiece, or anything close. So, managing various time demands really comes down to setting priorities – my family (incl. our dog) comes first, then the various deadlines, in my various jobs. It helps that cartooning is super fun for me, so I tend to book it under relaxation which moves it up the priority list ...

              What inspired you to illustrate your most recent book?

           Planetman is exciting for a number of reasons. One, Karen (Cioffi-Ventrice, the author) did a marvelous job in drafting an engaging story on a worthwhile subject, and it inspires me to contribute in this ‘literary conservation effort,' if you will. Artistically, it was fun to develop the visual looks of the three protagonists and then equally challenging to remain consistent to the character design, also knowing that there are more books in the series. While I have done a fair amount of editorial cartooning, this is my first children’s book and so I wanted to get it right or at least gave it a try … which led to constant publication delays (which 4RV graciously was very patient with). Ultimately, the boys are little superheroes; this requires a bit of a more animated drawing style which I’d like to think I handled reasonably well.

             Would you share something about your most recent book?

         Let’s just say that we all know that climate change is real and that recycling is important but it also can be fun, strengthen friendships and ultimately help men’s best friend to get out of a pickle, eh, ring … you’ll see.

             Do you have a particular process or technique, and if so, what?

            I really try to visualize poses in my head before I sit down and draw; that cuts down on multiple to-be-discarded drafts. I tell myself that’s more efficient but perhaps I’m just lazy, combined with unfounded confidence and no hesitation whatsoever to use my eraser. While I can create directly in digital media, here I draw everything first blue pencil on paper, strictly 2D, then scan it and from there work on it on a Wacom tablet in Photoshop. I love the quality of blue pencil with its ability to allow for nuanced line work – it allows me to literally “carve” a character out of a white piece of paper which to me is the main part of the creative process. This determines everything that comes afterward. In other words, you can be a top expert at digital touch-ups, but you won’t be able to ‘rescue’ a sub-par drawing; that said, you can definitely improve a pretty good drawing with digital mastery, particularly nuanced light effects and a vibrant color palette that can advance the storytelling. I continue to practice with and learn through both media.   

            How do you feel when you complete a book?

          Satisfied – for all of 10 min – then anxious because I know I could and should have done better with some illustrations, and apprehensive because it starts all over with the 2nd book in the series, but now I have less wiggle room as the characters are defined … i.e., more pressure, higher expectations all around. That said, it obviously feels good that people relate to it and already asked me to do another book.

           That sounds like an author feels after finishing a book, especially if a sequel in the works. Anyone who reads The Case of the Plastic Rings will be waiting anxiously for book 2.

           What are your illustration/arts achievements and goals?

          It’s not money, at least not primarily. Rather, I’d like to have my art seen by as many people as possible, even better then if a large portion of them enjoy it. That would necessitate making access affordable or ideally free which admittedly is not a particularly appealing business model to most children’s book publishers. Artistically, I’d like to be satisfied with the quality and consistency of my work – which will remain an elusive goal. It’s always good to push yourself.

           With not being able to foresee how many books will sell and which ones, I don't know of anyone who gets into the book business for the money. Sad but funny in a way.          

          Are you a member of any group or organization that aids you in your profession?

          Not that I can think of … there are professional organizations and societies, so perhaps at some point, I’d be invited to join, we’ll see, you can always dream. I do like to stop by at the Society of Illustrators when I’m in NYC – they have a lovely little restaurant upstairs that’s rarely packed amidst all the buzzing traffic in Midtown Manhattan, and you can marvel at the original Norman Rockwell behind the counter. Speaking of, I recommend visiting the Rockwell Museum at Sturbridge in Western Mass – look at the Saturday Evening Post covers that Rockwell did and you see what the gold standard is for turning inconsistent top quality. This guy was annoyingly good, marvelous stuff each and every one of his illustrations.  

         I would suggest you join SCBWI if you can.

        Does illustrating help better you as a person? How?

        … drawing calms me down also because I like to listen to either Frank Sinatra or Cool Jazz like Chet Baker in the back when I work on a piece. You can’t force it so you may as well enjoy it when everything comes together on a good day and you get that elusive pose or perspective finally right or experiment with a new brush on digital. And given all the quality competition out there, the quest to be consistently good is ever humbling … a bit like golf.

         What advice do you have for someone who wants to become an illustrator?

        First, make sure you love drawing – then draw, draw, draw & try to get better – and finally and most importantly, don’t be discouraged by rejection. Unless you’re a rock star out of the gate (at which point you probably won’t spend your time reading this interview), this field is super competitive and you’re bound to have to deal with constant critique and setbacks, many of them. It’s then when reason #1, i.e. love for drawing, helps you get through it – in addition to a super supportive family and group of long-term friends.

        What is your favorite genre to read? Your favorite author or authors? Yes, even illustrators need to read.

        I just finished “The Woman in the Window” by AJ Finn (a.k.a. Daniel Mallory) which I bought in a small independent book store up in Vermont and thoroughly enjoyed. I am still working on Fiona Deans Halloran’s biography of Thomas Nast, the German-American grandmaster of political editorial cartooning – fascinating how he established the pen as a much-feared tool for voicing political critique. I am currently reading “Berlin”, a comic book for mature audiences driven by rich characters set in the stormy backdrop of the Weimar Republic by Jason Lutes. At times, it feels like a masterly interwoven ensemble movie, and it is a revelation as to where graphic novels can go.

         Any other comment?

        Well, I enjoyed this – so, thank you, 4RV, for the opportunity. Secondly, if you made it that far in the interview, thanks for reading – and I’d say you deserve a wrap-up and get back to drawing … NOW!

     Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Tom.

      For more information about Tom, visit his website. His book can be purchased on the 4RV website, as well as through bookstores and other online stores.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Grammar - The Foundation of Good Writing

A sig given as gift.

         I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read, “Why should I care about using correct grammar in my writing? That’s why they have editors.” Wrong! Most publishers don’t edit any writing that comes their way, IF they even accept any error-filled manuscript. Paying for an experienced, dependable literary editor is expensive, and the editors themselves will do only so much.

         Some writers fight the idea that grammar (including sentence structure, punctuation, subject/verb agreement, pronoun usage, spelling, etc.) impacts the worthiness of writing, which is like saying failing to lay a solid foundation does not impact the stability of a building. Good grammar is extremely important. It shows the writer's professionalism and attention to detail. The writer will also be able to give an explanation that is understood.  
         Grammatical errors can cause confusion, and, in the worst-case scenarios, they can completely change the meaning of a sentence. A writer not knowing how to use good grammar will make writing difficult to read. Poor grammar (including all subtexts) breaks the flow of reading, annoys the reader, and reflects badly on the writer. No-one wants to be jarred from a really interesting read by poor punctuation or glaring grammatical errors.

         Writer Melissa Donovan states:

                   Too many times I’ve heard aspiring writers shrug off good grammar,
                   saying they’d rather focus on plot or character, they’d prefer to use a
                   natural, unlearned approach to keep the writing raw, or they will simply
                   hire an editor to do the dirty work.

                   I have a hard time buying into those lines of reasoning. Refusing to bother
                   with grammar is just plain lazy, especially for writers who yearn to be more
                   than hobbyists.

         Why should writers embrace grammar rather than make excuses for ignoring it? Here are ten reasons why good grammar should be a central pursuit in writing efforts:

1. Readability
         If your work is peppered with grammatical mistakes and typos, your readers are going to have a hard time trudging through it. Nothing is more distracting than being yanked out of a good story because a word is misspelled or a punctuation mark is misplaced. You should always respect your readers enough to deliver a product that is enjoyable and easy to use.

2. Communication
         Some musicians learn to play by ear and never bother to learn how to read music. Many of them don’t even know which notes and chords they’re playing, even though they can play a full repertoire of recognizable songs and probably a few of their own. But get them in a room with other musicians and they’ll quickly become isolated. You can’t engage with others in your profession if you don’t speak the language of your industry. Good luck talking shop with writers and editors if you don’t know the parts of speech, the names of punctuation marks, and all the other components of language and writing that are related to good grammar.

3. Getting Published
         How will you get that short story, essay, or blog post published if you don’t know the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Sure, some managing editors will go over your work and clean it up for you, but most reputable publishers have enough submissions that they can toss grammatically weak work into the trash without thinking twice.

4. Working with an Editor
         I love it when writers say they can just hire an editor. This goes back to communication. If you can’t talk shop with other writers, you certainly won’t be able to converse intelligently about your work and its flaws with a professional editor.          How will you respond to feedback and revision suggestions or requests when you don’t know what the heck the editor is talking about? Remember, it’s your work. Ultimately, the final version is your call, and you won’t be able to approve it if you’re clueless about what’s wrong with it.

5. Saving Money
         Speaking of hiring an editor, you should know that editors will only go so far when correcting a manuscript. It’s unseemly to return work to a writer that is solid red with markups. Most freelance editors and proofreaders have a limit to how much they will mark up any given text, so the more grammar mistakes there are, the more surface work the editor will have to do. That means she won’t be able to get into the nitty-gritty and make significant changes that take your work from average to superior because she’s breaking a sweat just trying to make it readable.

6. Invest in Yourself
         Learning grammar is a way to invest in yourself. You don’t need anything more than a couple of good writing resources and a willingness to take the time necessary to hone your skills. In the beginning, it might be a drag, but eventually, all those grammar rules will become second nature, and you will have become a first-rate writer.

7. Respectability, Credibility, and Authority
         As a first-rate writer who has mastered good grammar, you will gain respect, credibility, and authority among your peers. People will take you seriously and regard you as a person who is committed to the craft of writing, not just some hack trying to string words together in a haphazard manner.

8. Better Writing All-Around
         When you’ve taken the time to learn grammar, it becomes second nature. As you write, the words and punctuation marks come naturally because you know what you’re doing; you’ve studied the rules and put in plenty of practice. That means you can focus more of your attention on other aspects of your work, like structure, context, and imagery (to name a few). This leads to better writing all around.

{indent{According to Toni Fitzgerald ({i}The Writer{/i}, May 2020, page 14), "Reading messy grammar is diffult."

9. Self-Awareness
         Some people don’t have it. They charge through life completely unaware of themselves or the people around them. But, most of us possess some sense of self. What sense of self can you have as a writer who doesn’t know proper grammar? That’s like being a carpenter who doesn’t know what a hammer and nails are. It’s almost indecent.

10. There’s Only One Reason to Abstain from Good Grammar
         There is really only one reason to avoid learning grammar: the writer is just plain lazy. Anything else is a silly excuse.
         No matter what trade, craft, or career one is pursuing, everyone starts with learning the basics. Actors learn how to read scripts. Scientists learn how to apply the scientific method. Politicians learn how to… well, never mind what politicians do. We are writers. We must learn how to write well, and writing well definitely requires using good grammar.

         William B. Bradshaw, and author and writing expert says:

                   Whenever I get on my soapbox about grammar, people often tell me I put too
                   much emphasis on the importance of grammar -- after all, they say, why does
                   it matter what kind of grammar people use; the important thing is whether or
                   not they understand what they are saying and writing to one another.

         However, grammar is the foundation for communication. Let’s examine some grammatical mistakes:

                    ‘She was deeply effected by the death of her beloved pet.’ Toni Fitzgerald, page15, states, "Affect is a verb, and effect is (almost always) a noun."
                   ‘Its over their.’ She gestured to the large mahogany table slowly decaying in the corner.
                   Mary didn’t know weather it was time to go or not.
                   He bought milk when he should of bought bread.
                   Let’s eat Mary.’ and ‘Let’s eat, Mary. Can you see how this could end up with Mary being eaten for dinner?
                   Goats Cheese Salad – crispy lettuce, juicy tomatoes, cucumber, goats, cheese
                   Vegetarians are certainly going to be put off this salad when they realize it contains not only cheese, but goats!
                   My interests include cooking dogs, walking, reading and watching films. Oh dear, those poor dogs. I wonder who gets to eat the canine culinary delights created by this person?

                   There is used in place of their or they're, or one of the others is used incorrectly.
                   It's and its are not interchangeable.
                   Your and you're are not the same.
                   Commas are not used where needed, or they are sprinkled like rose petals everywhere possible. Run-on sentences create a feeling of confusion in the minds of readers.

         All right (and that's another mistake, using alright for all right), some people don't know grammar well, but writers and editors definitely should. I don't know that I would want to read a book by someone who can't manage to understand the difference between homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings) and/or what version of a pronoun is used as the object of a preposition.

         For example, I often hear (hear not here), "That's important to Mary and I." Really? He would say "That's important to I"? Actually, that is what he did say. A compound object is the same form pronoun as a singular object. And, I have heard and read that problem from so-called well-educated people. Anything between a speaker or writer and another person means the object form MUST be used: between John and me; between my husband and me; between you and him.

1.  Correct grammar is required (except in the case of dialogue in dialect).
2.  Correct sentence and grammatical mechanics are needed. This point means correct subject/verb agreement, correct sentence structure, correct pronoun reference and usage, sentence variety, etc.3.
3.  Correct spelling is a MUST. Correct spelling includes using correct words in context. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently are misspelled if the wrong word is used: For example, they're, their, and there mean completely different things.
4.  Correct punctuation is important to avoid confusion.

         IF a person wants to be a REAL writer, he/she must know grammar to be considered professional. Therefore, if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar and all of its subtexts, learn. Find a good easy-to-understand book of grammar and read it, refer to it, and use the knowledge inside it. Find websites with grammar lessons and information.

          Grammar has much to do with good writing. It is the foundation of good writing.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Interview with Karen Cioffi - The Case of the Plastic Rings

           Meet Karen Cioffi, the author of two 4RV books: Walking Through Walls (a hardcover version just released) and The Case of the Plastic Rings - The Adventures of Planetman, agreed to be interviewed for this newsletter/blog. Karen answers to the questions will be in black, while the questions will be in blue. Enjoy learning more about this interesting author.

     How did/does your history and home background affect your writing? 

     Ever since I can remember, I've been a conservationist. I've always cared about the environment. As a children's writer, it gives me the perfect platform to enlighten children about ways they can help protect Earth.

     Tell us something about your educational background that made you a better, or more caring, writer.

     Minoring in English Literature in college and reading a lot of children's books helped me become a better writer. Along with this, learning about writing and practicing helped me improve my writing skills.

     As far as being a caring writer, I think that's something you just have.
     Please share your hobbies, interests, or activities with us, you know the ones for during your leisure time (laugh), if you have any. 
      That is funny … leisure time. Even with the world situation of lockdowns and shelter-ins, I'm very busy. I used to draw, play the guitar, and the piano, but when my writing became more time consuming, I had to put them on the back burner.

      Authors are often asked when they started writing or what triggered their interest in writing. I’d like to know that, too, but I would especially like to know what keeps you writing.

      I started writing as a child. As a teenager, I wrote poems. Then when I had my first child, I wrote a lullaby to help put her to sleep at night. When my first grandson came, I wrote another song. I've written on and off through the years until about 15 years ago. I jumped into writing for children.

     I don't know what keeps me writing – I can't imagine not writing. There are so many stories to tell and so many lessons to pass along, subtly of course.

      How do you manage to write and care for your family, too? 

      For a number of years, it was just my husband and myself, so writing time came easy. Then I took an accounting job about two years ago, outside the home. Around the same time, my daughter and now three-year-old grandson came to live with me. So, time became scarce. But they say where there's a will there's a way. I always manage to get my writing in and do everything else I need to. Also, I'm great at zoning out distractions.

      What inspired you to write your most recent book?

       I've always been concerned about the environment, how we can protect it. It seemed to come naturally to want to write a children's book about the topic. I did research and jumped into Planetman.

      I think fiction stories, as a way to teach or enlighten a child, is an excellent tool. If the story is engaging enough, it works well. 

      How did you decide the title for your book? Would you share something about your book?

      I wanted to write something that kids would enjoy reading. I know kids like to have the main characters be someone they'd like to be, so I thought of Planetman. Most kids love superheroes.

      I read about the dangers of plastic, especially plastic rings, like those that hold six-packs of soda together. This seemed like the perfect topic for the first book in the series. This gave me the full title for the first book: The Adventures of Planetman – The Case of the Plastic Rings.

      Since kids love mysteries and going on adventures through books, I thought creating a 'case to go on' would work well.

      Do you have a particular writing process or technique, and if so, what?

      I write every day. Along with being an author, I'm a children's ghostwriter, so I'm usually working on two, and often more books at one time. Focus is a definite necessity.

      For picture books, I use the seat-of-the pants method. I write and the story unfolds.

      For short chapter books of 5-7,000 words, I use the same method.

      For longer chapter books and middle-grade, I usually start the story then when I decide I had enough, I write an outline, even if it's basic. Outlines do help. The more detailed the better.

      For Walking Through Walls, I used a basic outline of an ancient Chinese tale.

      How do you feel when you complete a book?

      When I complete a fiction book, it's a feeling of satisfaction. Something that didn't exist now does. If it's a big project and takes a while, I feel relieved.

       What are your writing achievement and goals?

       Walking Through Walls was honored with the Children's Literary Classics Silver Award. And in June 2012, my website at the time was chosen as Website of the Week by Brian Klems for Writer's Digest. I was thrilled.

       My writing goals are to keep writing and produce more quality books under my own name.

      How do any writing groups benefit you and your writing? If you’re not in a writing group, why not?

       I've belonged to critique groups and have belonged to writing groups through the years. I'm also the Editor-in-Chief of Writers on the Move which is a group of writers and marketers.

       I also belong to the Professional Writers Association, Association of Ghostwriters, SCBWI, and a couple of others.

      Writing groups help writers hone their skills, especially if there are experienced writers in them along with newbies. These groups are a place to bounce ideas off of and ask for help.

      Does writing help better you as a person? How?

       I'm not sure writing betters me as a person. I think it gives me a platform to bring ideas to children and broaden their imaginations.

      What advice do you have for a new writer?

       Don't skip ahead of the line. Take the time to learn the craft of writing. Don't let self-publishing be a means to produce an inferior book.

       And, two of my favorite quotes for writers are:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." ~ Stephen King

"A writer who never gives up is called Published."~ J.A. Konrath

       What is your favorite genre to read? Your favorite author or authors?

       My favorite genre to read has changed so many times. I've liked mysteries and fantasy. Now I like nonfiction – I like learning.
       My taste in authors has also changed over the years, but they include Edgar Allan Poe, J. R. R. Tolkien, Kate Chopin, Robert Munsch, and Linda Sue Park. 
Author Karen Cioffi

        Thank you, Karen. If anyone is interested in purchasing Karen's books, one place to find them is the following: 4RV Publishing: Karen's page.
         Learn more about the author on Karen's website