So the kid and I recently went to our first ever Movies in the Park in Redlands, California, to watch The Lego Movie.

How was it, you ask?

It was AWESOME!!

Firstly, it was in Downtown Redlands, which, if you are not familiar, is the coolest town in the I.E. It’s filled with unique shops and tree-lined walkways and fantastic eateries. There’s a gorgeous old library next to the Lincoln Memorial, an outdoor amphitheater where Shakespeare is performed in season, and a historical neighborhood with more Victorian mansions than you can shake a cat at. Let’s put it this way…everyone in the Inland Empire wants to live in Redlands. And if they don’t, then they’re lying…because Redlands is AWESOME.¹

Secondly, against all astronomical odds — especially during a popular event like this —  I found parking within smelling distance of a healthy fart. That’s how close we were. AWESOME!

Our friends had already staked out a primo spot, so it was just a matter of transferring our chairs from our primo parking spot to our primo reserved spaces. AWESOME!!

The mood was festive! Kids were all over the place. Bags of Legos were passed out to eager little ones, and people in lawn chairs were scattered all over the place. We all brought snacks. There was no doubt we were headed into an awesome evening.

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When I first embarked on this publishing adventure, my plans were simple: get my stories out on e-readers…period. I wasn’t thinking I’d publish in paperback, and it certainly didn’t occur to me to do illustrations. I hadn’t drawn much since high school, and I hadn’t made any finished pieces…like ever. My practice had pretty much been limited to doodling. And while I am a prolific doodler, it was a big question mark whether or not I could translate my doodling skills into usable art.

But once this idea of illustrating Between Friends wormed its way into my little brain meats, I couldn’t get rid of it. I loved the illustrations in all of my Nancy Drew books.  I LOVED the illustrations that marked the beginning of each chapter in the Harry Potter series.

More recently, I was introduced by my best friend Kellie to the delightful mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith. He’s probably most well known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but he also wrote the charming 44 Scotland Street series, as well as the outrageously understated and quirky The Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainment series . These last two series, 44 Scotland Street and Professor Dr. von Igelfeld, were both illustrated by Iain McIntosh, an artist who is so perfectly paired with these stories that he lives only two minutes’ walk from 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh. His work features heavy lines that contrasts nicely with some of the absurdities of the stories, and they are deceptively simple.

But I could do it, I thought. They’re such little pictures. Little pictures are doable. I’ll just keep it simple. I’ll start with a fish. Fish are easy, right?

My husband Fat Cat concurred. “You can draw a fish.”

I agreed with him. “I can draw a fish.”

Fat Cat gave me that inscrutable look he always gives me.

“I will draw a fish.”

It couldn’t be that hard, right? Fish are easy. A long football shape with eyes and fins and scales. Got it!


Not really. I mean, it wasn’t hard to draw a fish…but I really didn’t know how to go about it. What kind of pens do illustrators use? And what about style? Where does one find some of that?

More importantly…What’s my motivation?!

I turned to YouTube where I learned about basic tools and techniques from Cheap Joe, perspective and advanced techniques from Mark Crilley, and inspiration from Shoo Rayner. I also joined a Facebook group (Every Day I’m Drawing) dedicated to drawing daily. That helped a lot and got me to produce a few silly pieces that helped boost my confidence. (I’ll have to share those in a future blog post sometime.)

I think the most important thing I did, though, was just to start.

I started with a doodle. Then I realized I didn’t know all the proper parts of a fish, so I printed up different reference images from the Interwebz. For a hot minute, I thought I’d go with a more stylized approach in an effort to keep it simple, and because I so admire the unique look of Iain McIntosh’s illustrations.

Ultimately, though, I ended up redoing my “simple” fish to match better the illustrations that followed. I mean, this may just be a fish, but in the story, it’s a damn happy fish. At least at that moment in the story. The next moment, not so much.


By the way, my “equipment” was pretty basic. I used watercolor paper since that’s what I had, and I sketched everything in pencil…just cheap, plastic click-click pencils. I used Pigma Micron pens by Sakura of various tip sizes, discovering a preference for the 03, or 0.35 mm line. I traced over the lines I wanted to keep with archival ink, then went over the whole thing with an eraser to get rid of the pencil lines. That’s it. Nothing fancy.


The next illustration in the book came from the need to break up a long bit of text. It seemed natural to have an illustration at the beginning of one scene, which was marked by a microwave clock. I really didn’t want to draw a picture of a digital microwave clock (boring!), so I decided it should be a swinging-tail cat clock because that’s totally what my characters Erika and Chimmy would put in their kitchen.

I drew a couple versions of those that were way too cartoony…until I realized that Erika and Chimmy wouldn’t have just a swinging-tail cat clock…they would have a swinging-tail cat clock. And thus, Mr. Purrbody was born…and killed…and hung up on the kitchen wall in the name of fiction! (But do not fret, he enjoys his circumstances of his eternal rest.)

Kitty Cat Clock


By this time, I had discovered a love for crosshatching. It is a special kind of meditation that quiets my ever-screeching monkey mind and makes me particularly happy. (For a taste of crosshatching happiness, check out Dan Nelson’s incredibly mesmerizing video Pen and Ink Cross Hatching Masters Edition.) Also, I am a huge fan of Maurice Sendak’s work, especially in Little Bear. Aww!

For Between Friends, I wanted to include a couple of full-page illustrations, so again, I tried to keep it simple. This is also when I discovered the value of doing studies. I had heard of the technique, but it wasn’t until I had drawn one — a teeny, tiny doodle really — that I realized what it was and why artists do it. It’s basically a thumbnail of your concept, just enough to give you an idea of whether you’re heading in the right direction or not. Lightbulbs blazed to life above my head at this discovery.

American Southwest


For the frontispiece, the illustration that faces the title page — both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series featured fantastic frontispieces — BRING BACK THE FRONTISPIECE! — I got a little ambitious. Simple went out the window and sleep be damned, seven hours later I had my frontispiece. Crosshatching bliss! You can’t get this kind of peace from hot mama yoga. I’ve tried!

As you can see, my first attempt at the concept produced a rather poopy-looking cloud, as Fat Cat astutely pointed out. So I delved into the depths of the Interwebz for various reference photos for the clouds and terrain, made a little study to figure out my contrast, and eventually came up with the storm that Chimmy rode into town on.

Strange Storm


After finishing the storm piece, I started to feel confident that I might actually be able to pull this off. I mean, this was crazy! For the first time ever, I had completed illustrations…with an end purpose in mind. Art with purpose! How was this possible? I didn’t want to scare it away.

Fortunately, the rest of the illustrations were pretty simple in concept, and with a few reference photos, I was able to produce the giggling daisy that Chimmy gave Erika when they first met…

Happy Daisy

….as well as the reflection of Erika’s eyes when she reached for the knife at Chimmy’s desperate pleading….

I see you!

…and finally the end piece, a last cup of tea.

Deadly Tea

So if you are an author interested in illustrating your own work, but don’t feel you have the experience or know-how — or are just interested in art-making in general — keep this in mind: this did not take me very much time. From start to finish, I probably did these over a two-week* period of time, the longest piece taking 7 hours, the shortest…maybe an hour, hour and a half. This is with no significant prior experience. A little bit of doing goes a long way.

To me, this is an example of a project that seemed bigger and more difficult than it actually was…yet, was only able to be achieved due to one single thing I did: I started.

You know what to do. 🙂

(And send me links, tags, or whatever, so I can admire and share your glorious creations!)


If you’re interested in seeing the final product and reading a pretty twisted tale of friendship and dark secrets, you can find it here. Includes interior illustrations by yours truly, an essay on Ray Bradbury, and a picture of me paying homage to the Far Side lady!

two steaming cups of tea, goblin hands resting on table

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Other e-tailers coming soon!


*I spent an equal amount of time figuring out how to scan and treat the images properly to get them into the book. Thanks to rauz and his awesome, saved-my-ass Instructable on scanning inked drawings. 🙂



“Autopilot” by Jon McConnell…my little brother!

Now we come to the third and most difficult part of an idea’s journey to becoming a first draft story, and that is the brain.  That’s right.  The very thing responsible for making us capable of placing words next to each other to form epic sagas that last generations is also the very thing that prevents more masterpieces being written than we’ll ever know…or would want to know.

In Steven Pressfield’s magical, indispensable, I’m-never-going-to-stop-pimping-it book, “The War of Art,” he identifies the negative, repelling, impersonal force that prevents us from doing our work as Resistance.

Pressfield writes:  “Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves.  We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids.  ‘Peripheral opponents,’ as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers.  Resistance arises from within.  It is self-generated and self-perpetuated.  Resistance is the enemy within.

Are you all looking down at your bellies right now, thinking about the frightening alien that always emerges from your gut to rest its judgmental chin on your keyboard and criticize your writing voice every time you sit down?  No?  Oh, okay.  Never mind.  I guess it’s different for everyone. <cough>

Incubating parasitic aliens aside, we truly are our own worst enemies.  If you have ever worried what anyone thinks about your writing — or art — be it your spouse, your best friend, your parents, your kids, your co-workers, imagined readers, then you’ve met this particular variety of Resistance.  And I think it’s easily boiled down to its molecular level, which is good old-fashioned Fear.

We are ultimately all afraid of being judged unloved or unlovable.

You don’t believe me?  Then what is that gut-twisting feeling you always get after you share your work with someone?  Right.

When we speak of this concept of “art,” I think most of us imagine art as some sort of receptacle in which we place a small piece of ourselves, that we must somehow suffer by taking away from ourselves.  That may be true in some respects — like blood, sweat, and tears — but that little piece of ourselves that we have put into an effort of art does not define us as a whole.  That means when we receive judgment on a piece, it’s simply a judgment of the piece and not of us.

In other words, that novel you’ve been working on and loving on and hugging on for the past five years may seem like all-your-eggs-in-a-basket, you’re-gonna-die-a-painful-death-of-grief-if-you-don’t-sell-it, once-in-a-lifetime type of project, but it’s not.  You are not one book.  You are not one story.  You are not one poem, one painting, one song, one recipe, whatever it is you uniquely make.  Please do not make the mistake of attaching your identity to one project.  It’s not necessary, and it only causes pain.

“Life is not a support system for art.  It’s the other way around.” Stephen King, “On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft.”

King is right.  You can’t afford to risk your ego and your psyche with this kind of thinking.  Nobody can.  Life is about people.  You have people depending on you.  Do what you have to do to be happy as an artist, but remember always, you are just a mere mortal and your art is but a result of focused concentration and effort by you, a mere mortal.  This way of thinking will save you when your brain starts coughing up lies to trick you away from your work.

What does this have to do with getting faster at writing first drafts?  Everything. I think the biggest problem with Fear is that it’s strongest before we begin.  If we never begin, there is no first draft at all…just a lot of standing around and feeling bad about it.

You have to turn Fear on its head, slap a harness on it, and ride it into worlds outrageous.  This is key.  Fear is not a negative force.  It’s simply how we tend to perceive it.  But Fear is behind every innovative, genre-busting, widely-lauded project.  Fear can drive us to take amazing risks if you use it right.

Let me ask you this:  What’s more scary?  Finishing your novel, putting the best of your time, love, and energy into it, and sending it out into the world where it most likely will receive rejection before it receives success, if ever?  Or is it more frightening the very notion that you might never write the story you were meant to write because you were too scared to start?  This is like dying from an ailment that was easily cured because you were too afraid to see the doctor.  Very sad stuff.

This is not headline breaking news any of these things I’m telling you.  You all have heard this stuff a thousand times before.  So why haven’t you been listening?  Don’t read this stuff and then go on carrying on like you have been, squirreling ideas away for some distant future, talking more about the writing than actually doing the writing.  At some point, you’ve got to really play the role of the artist and ply your trade.  Otherwise, you’re just a conversation piece with a label.  Those guys never get to live forever.  You don’t want to be one of those guys, do you?

So how do we get around all of this Fear?  (In case you’re wondering, I capitalize it because it deserves that kind of respect.)  How do we capture its positive qualities and use Fear as fuel that will burn hot enough to allow us to escape the gravitational pull of everyday thinking?

Would that it were so easy that you could just remove your brain and set it aside, yes?  Even the most stalwart writing professional has these niggling little worries that if they let them, will work their fingers into the cracks and blow up full force into paralyzing, work-stopping Fear.  What we need is some kind of strategy, some kind of coping measure that will allow us to deal with our worries in an effective, efficient matter.  What we need is a magic feather.

And I haz one.  Wanna hear it?  Great!  Here it is:

Whenever you sit down to work and your brain starts cranking out some Fear-based notions to trip you up, say these magic words:  “Fuck ’em.”

To all the ego-blasting comments made by your mother-in-law, your spouse, fellow writers and artists, fuck ’em.  To the seeming threat of a life toiled in obscurity, fuck it.  To the fears that your words are meaningless, stupid, humorless, lacking in any sort of intelligence, fuck ’em.  This is an effective way of getting your brain to shut the hell up and let you get your work done.  Whatever creeps up to whisper in your ear, if it’s not, “You go, girl!” (or “boy!” as the case may be), then it needs to be squashed with those two very simple, very strong words:  “Fuck ’em.”

If this sounds unnecessarily profane, it’s not meant to be.  I’m a firm believer that the word “fuck” has its place in our language, and there’s no stronger word that I can think of that has the strength enough to squelch bad feelings before they grow into something insidious.  Next time you worry whether or not you should even be writing at all, try saying, “Ah, fudge it.”  Not the same.  I’m just saying.

By the by, this is not to suggest that you go to your husband or judgmental sister and tell them to fuck off.  That’s a totally different use of the word, and you’re on your own if you do that.

By the way — and I know this is getting tremendously long, and I do apologize for that, but this is such an important topic for writers and artists — there’s always a lot of talk about humility.  I agree that the artist should be humble about his or her gifts and their work.

But I also believe that there’s just no place for humility when writing the first draft.  This is the critical, primordial stage of your creation where you need to get arrogant, strut your stuff, build yourself up.  Look yourself in the mirror and say, “Hello, beautiful!  Won’t you look nice on the back cover flap of your debut, hardback, bestselling, take-the-nation-by-storm book with a highly anticipated famous-director-attached summer movie to come?  Would love to chat and admire, but I’ve got a story that needs handling.  Ciao, baby!”

Do this.  Really.  Stand in front of the mirror and say something grand and incredible and thrilling to yourself.  This is your future, and if you don’t imagine it as being epic, it never will be.  And no matter what protestations your brain tries to throw up, just say, “Fuck ’em,” and give yourself a big kiss…and then get to work, gorgeous!


Big, huge, grateful thanks to my brother, Jon McConnell, for creating this amazing painting for us…and in less than a day.  Go check out his website!  He is a true artist in every sense of the word.  I love you, bro.