Category Archives: Stacey’s Posts

Your Art Matters

Stacey Kite

A few decades ago, in the dark ages before the internet and cell phones, I did some freelance work for a role-playing game publisher and illustrated several cards for their game.

They gave me an insane schedule, but I worked my but off, going without sleep for days so I could finish the paintings in time for them dry enough to be mailed off. (Back then, I only worked in oil, and even with drying agents added, the paintings still took days to cure.) Though it nearly killed me, I got the work done on time.

But the company stiffed me. They didn’t even pay me the kill fee listed in the contract. Lots of phone calls ensued, with lots of excuses and promises on the publisher’s side, but no check ever arrived. (Though they did have the temerity to offer me more assignments later, which I declined.) Eventually, realizing the logistical and financial issues involved with trying to collect on a debt from a company a thousand miles away in a another state, I gave up any hopes of getting paid and simply did my best to forget about the whole episode.

Then a couple of years ago, someone from Europe started contacting me through my art website about the illustrations I’d done for the game. Since the company had long ago gone bust, I ignored the emails. It was a decades old bad decision that I’d made, and I didn’t want to be reminded of it.

The guy was persistent, though. Every few months, I’d get another note from him, asking if I was The Stacey Kite who’d illustrated for Iron Crown. I deleted the emails without answering them. They kept coming, and I kept ignoring them. (Like I said, it was a bad experience.) It was over and done with, and I’d moved on.

Fast forward to mid-July this year…

 I was packing for a cross-country move and binge listening to audio books, including The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Though the novel was a best-seller a few years ago, I’d avoided it. (Who wants to read a story about kids dying of cancer?) But the wry humor shaved the hard edges off the subject matter, and I loved the characters—except for one. There always has to be an antagonist in a story or there’s no story, and though cancer is the big enemy in The Fault in Our Stars, John Green added an additional human antagonist—a reclusive novelist. The man is a horrible jerk, and as a reader (really, a listener) I loved to hate him. He was rude and dismissive to the wonderful and funny kids who were fans of his book—and happened to be dying of cancer.

Two weeks after listening to John Green’s book, I received yet another email asking if I was the one who’d done the illustrations. My automatic reaction was to delete it, but then a horrible thought struck me, Am I acting like the jerk-writer?

Eek!

So, of course, I responded to the email, writing that yes, I was that Stacey Kite.

And I’m thrilled that I did.

The young man’s response was fabulous and made me feel great. He described how as a child he’d come from a place where that kind of fantastical art didn’t exist. Then he discovered the cards and his world opened.

They made a difference in his life. The paintings I had done years ago–the ones I’d tried desperately to forget about—had affected him. He wanted to mail the cards to me and have me autograph them and then ship them back to him. Evidently, he’s kept the deck all these years and has been on a quest to get every contributing artist to sign their cards. I’m one of the last ones, and I’m thrilled that I finally overcame my aversion and answered his email.

Sharing an emotion, affecting someone else—making someone feel—is what art is all about, and I achieved that. Though I didn’t know it until I answered that email. That’s why we paint and write, after all—especially those of us who write and illustrate for children. We want to share the magic we felt as kids when an illustration took our breath away, when a book changed our lives.

Art is a hard road. Sometimes it feels like slaving away in isolation for nothing, or less than nothing, but it’s not in vain. You’re not screaming into the void. Somebody will be changed by the art you create. I’m proof of that.

Inspiration—Who Knew?

Stacey Kite

With Covid19 sweeping the planet, I’m in desperate need of humor. Fortunately, I got a good dose of it a couple of days ago.

Laura, my fellow WriteOwl, texted me a link to an old news story about the Oregon highway division blowing up a dead and rotting whale that had beached in Florence, OR in 1970. As it happens, my husband, Fred, and I are having a house built there and will be moving to Florence in just a few months, and I’m currently writing a story about whales. (There’s even one that beaches and dies in Act 1.) Continue reading

The Machine Uprising

Stacey Kite

I had planned to start this year’s Write by Midnight challenge off strong, intent on tackling WBM bingo square E-2: Write or revise an entire scene, but even meeting the write-every-day goal was a challenge for me over the weekend because our appliances revolted.

First, it was the oven. It had a berserker temper tantrum, spontaneously rocketing past the 425 ºF temperature we’d asked for into self-cleaning oven territory, cremating an entire batch of biscuits on its way. Of course, that produced a lot of smoke which woke up the smoke detector, which started screaming like a hysterical banshee—which woke up Princess Kaylee. Continue reading

An Internal War

Stacey Kite

Why do I write?

Recently I asked myself that question. Not because I’m uncertain about my quest to become a published author—I want it, I want it bad—but because I’ve had a terrible bout of writer’s block that has been driving me nuts. Every time I sit down at the computer to write, a voice in the back of my head yells, “D-O-P! D-O-P! It’s all dead-on-page!”

Replotting and outlining scenes in ever more excruciating detail hasn’t helped, neither has working on different scenes, regimented scheduling, taking time off, meditating, writing longhand, giving myself daily word count goals, speed writing or daydreaming my story while listening to music. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to happen in the scene, it’s that the words won’t flow.

Then a friend recommended Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance by Rosanne Bane. The book makes a point of how the limbic system of our brains—that part that processes emotions—steps in, temporarily wresting the driver’s wheel of our consciousness from the frontal cortex all the time. Though our conscious selves don’t realize there’s been a mental hijacking, we feel the effects—the aversion, the reluctance, the futility and the sudden, overwhelming compulsion to defrost the freezer. Those are the emotional handles the more primitive side of our consciousness uses to herd us all. Often, it is a fear response.

Since the first step in solving a problem is identifying it, I started asking myself what am I truly afraid of on a deep, emotional level, other than spiders. Success? Failure? Humiliating myself by sending out something that isn’t nearly as good as I think it is? (I call that my reality-talent-show phobia.) I have all those fears—okay, not the first one but definitely the other two—but that still didn’t feel like the complete issue.

Then I had a long talk with a writer friend of mine who was foolish enough to carpool with me on a three-and-a-half-hour trip. She had been the one to recommend Bane’s book in the first place and kindly played amateur psychoanalyst on the long drive. After a couple of hours of back and forth, she made a shrewd observation. Every time I become confident in my abilities in a given area, I switch to something different—even to the extreme of changing professions. I’ve been a lab tech, a Naval Officer, a Reactor Dynamics instructor, a Veterinarian, an Artist and more.

When I’m learning something new, I’m totally committed, whether it’s studying differential equations or plot structure. I will work my tail off for years, fully immersed, but when I finally feel comfortable with what I’m doing—once the challenge fades—my passion dries up. Proving to myself that I can do something is my real emotional reward, my emotional cheese, and as soon as I have that, the passionate part of me goes AWOL.

But I need that passion to write! The part of my mind that loves lists and facts and planning—the disciplined side that tackles problems by breaking them down into step-by-step procedures and thinks it’s in charge writes D-O-P prose. There is plot—my cerebral cortex is great at plot—but no flow or magic.

Those things come from the other side of my mind—whether I call that my creative side, my limbic system or my muse. It’s the part of me that slides into characters’ skins, sees through their eyes and breathes their air. It’s the part that can bring words to life. It’s also the side that felt writing a few good scenes was enough and toddled off to a hammock by the pool, leaving my cerebral cortex to flail on alone. My muse is like a mouse that won’t the run the maze because she’s already gotten the cheese.

My cortex isn’t giving in, though. I want to write good books—plural. Which means retraining myself on how to respond when my limbic system tries to shift me in the wrong direction. But how can I do that?

First, I’m going to follow the advice in Around the Writer’s Block step-by-step: saying “not now” to my limbic system when it tells me folding the laundry is suddenly urgent, eliminate distractions, give myself credit for effort instead of production, and schedule short writing intervals with small, achievable goals.

Second, since my limbic system’s cheese is a new challenge, I’m going to try to shift the challenge from writing well, to finishing the next chapter, and then the next, and then the ms itself. I’m going to visualize the published book in my hand, feel the weight of it and see the cover. I will entice my muse with a little cheese at the end of every writing session in the form of a new puzzle game.

And I will write on, no matter how the saboteur in the back of my brain attacks. Every time it bellows D-O-P, I will recognize it for the blatant manipulation tactic it is and keep going. It’s the only way I will ever get what I want.

Larry’s Scene Structure Guide

Stacey Kite

Scenes are the basic building blocks of stories, but I haven’t found much succinct, useful information out there about how to structure a scene. So I was very excited when my brother Larry, an avid reader and plot-buddy extraordinaire, started telling me about patterns he was seeing in scenes that consistently worked in book after book. With his permission, I’m going to share his insights with you because I think he’s really on to something.

First, there must be real peril in the scene, either physical or psychological or both. If the scene’s protagonist is simply observing something but has no risk, the scene probably won’t work. Given that, here is Larry’s basic scene structure guide.

  1. Stage the scene: Let the reader know what the scene’s major character is doing immediately before the scene starts. This may take only a sentence or two or a couple of paragraphs but should rarely take more than half of a page.

Example 1: The protagonist is speeding down the highway with the setting sun glaring right into her eyes as she’s trying to get home by curfew.

Example 2: Our protagonist is cleaning the goat pen–on an alien planet that’s being terraformed by human colonists.

Example 3: She’s walking the family dog in the park along the river at 6:00 a.m. There are one or two other distant dog walkers but no one close.

Example 4: She’s firing her starboard thruster to adjust her spaceships trajectory.

  1. Anomaly/Irregularity: Something small but unexpected happens. It’s not something that’s been happening all along that the character suddenly notices. It’s a new thing that attracts the character’s attention.

Example 1: An old pickup with a flapping tarp pulls out in front of her, and something flies out the back.

Example 2: She feels a tickle on her left forearm.

Example 3: The old dog plants its feet, refusing to budge, its rheumy eyes fixed on a cluster of bushes swaying in the breeze twenty feet away.

Example 4: She catches a whiff of burnt wire.

  1. Investigation/Discovery: In action/emotional gut-punch scenes, this phase can be ultra-short or simply implied and simultaneous with the next steps—plan, action and failure—or it can take pages and make up the bulk of the scene. It may only be the character glancing aside, or it could involve sleuthing through an office after dark. In an abrupt scene, investigation/discover can even happen after plan, action and failure.
  2. +/- Plan: Once the character has identified the irregularity, she comes up with a plan to deal with the situation. Her plan can be anything from a subconscious, reflex reaction to a full-fledged decision weighing pros and cons.
  3. Action: The protagonist acts. Acting can include freezing.
  4. Failure: The character’s plan/action fails.

Though investigation/discovery, plan, action and failure generally happen in that order, they don’t have to. They can even be inter-twined.

Example 1: She smashes down on the brake, but there’s an ugly thunk sound and a jolt as the debris connects with her car. Only after she pulls to the side of the road does she realize it was a piece of rotted two-by-four, complete with rusty nails—and that the left front tire is toast. (In this case, her plan to avoid the oncoming projectile is subconscious and occurs simultaneously with action. Then, only after failure, does she go through the discover/investigation step.)

Example 2: She’s already brushing at the thing when she recognizes the velvety purple and green markings of a cow-killer, an alien bug armed with venom potent enough to drop a bull to its knees. It stings her. (Action, then discovery/investigation, followed by failure.)

Example 3: She peers into the brush, but doesn’t see anything. The dog is older than dirt and half blind, but still, the girl is cautious as she creeps forward, dropping the leash. (Since this one’s a suspense it will take time to develop, but you get the gist.) Pushing aside the vegetation, she sees a grubby man hunched over the body of a little boy. She thinks runaway, runaway, runaway, but her legs aren’t working. She can’t move. (Plan, action, discovery/investigation then failure.)

Example 4: She powers down the ship and goes in search of the source of smoke, discovering a fried circuit in the navigation system. After getting out the ship’s tool kit, she finds that half its normal contents are missing. (Discover/investigation, plan, action then failure.)

Rinse and repeat plan, action and failure until you get to the worst moment of the scene, the apparent defeat.

  1. Apparent Defeat: The lowest point when it looks like the scene’s protagonist is in the greatest physical and/or emotional peril. The risk doesn’t necessarily have to be real, but the character needs to think it is real.

Example 1: After swearing, she goes to call her parents, but can’t find her phone. Oh crap, she left it behind at Patty’s. Finally, she goes to the back of the car, and opens the trunk. While she’s standing there, staring at the pieces of the jack, trying to figure out what the heck to do with it all, a car pulls in behind her. A nice guy gets out and says he’ll change the tire for her, but when he gets close, he grabs her and puts her in a headlock. (Plan, action, plan, action then apparent defeat.)

Example 2: She goes down, curling into a fetal position, her muscles spasming.

Example 3: Behind her, the dog growls. The man’s head whips around, and he starts bellowing at her.

Example 4: She scavenges parts and improvises until she thinks she’s solved the problem, only  to find that now the ship won’t start back up. All the electrical systems are dead.

  1. Reaction: This time, there is no plan. The protagonist simply reacts.

Example 1: She flails, and her hand lands blindly on the lug wrench and bashes the guy’s head with it again and again.

Example 2: She’s rolling around in the goat muck, cradling her arm.

Example 3: She rabbits.

Example 4: She loses it and bangs on the control panel with her palm.

  1. Success, Failure or Escape: One of those three things happens.

Example 1: She uses her attacker’s phone to call the police. (Success)

Example 2: But the goat poop and urine she’s wallowing in numbs the pain, somehow neutralizing the venom. She’s discovered a treatment!

Example 3: She rabbits and makes it halfway down the beach before she realizes what the man behind her is yelling and what is really going on. He’s yelling for her to call 911. The guy isn’t a killer, he’s doing CPR on the kid. He’s trying to save him. (In this case, it was a false sense of jeopardy.)

Example 4: The lights wink back on.

Of course, not every scene needs every step, and if the scene you’re writing is already working, don’t worry about it. But if a scene feels dead-on-the-page, try giving Larry’s scene structure a go. And make sure to include peril! Without peril—whether physical, emotional or both—there is no scene.