Spring is coming

Not much to say these days about my creative projects as I haven’t finished as much in February as I had planned, but I’m doing a monthly post to update my progress and check in with my goals anyway.

This last December, January and February were slow creatively. I have gotten a very slow start to my short stories, and find them more difficult to write while also focusing on longer works. It’s harder than I thought to switch between forms; it’s a different mentality, and it takes more stamina to complete a novel. Short stories are harder to write, but they also take less time. Currently, I’m putting all my energy into a novella, my weird Gothic story. It may turn into a novel, but I’ve discovered I have a tendency to overwrite, so it may be a different story after revisions. It’s currently at 11,770 words. 

I’m totally pantsing it, and also sketching some ideas and scenes in a handwritten notebook as I go. My idea is just to make it weirder and darker and more nebulous as I go along, so I thought the notebook would help jog more bizarre scene ideas loose. I draw out stream-of-consciousness mind maps and interconnected words and phrases in the notebook, then turn to my screen. I’ve tried different methods for writing novel-length manuscripts and I’m trying to find one that sticks. So far “plantsing” seems to work for me, a combination of plotting and pantsing. Pantsing is when you go in with no outline, no plan, and you just start writing. It comes from the phrase “flying by the seat of your pants.”

March goals

So for March, I have decided I will not think about short stories at all except for a new one for my Patreon subscribers, and focus solely on the weird Gothic WIP (work in progress). I think I have a tendency to overwhelm myself with projects and then sabotage myself into not finishing any of them. My brain does not do as well as I think with multi-tasking. And I really want to finish a novella- or novel-length manuscript this year. That is Goal Number One. I will put my other fresh ideas into my Idea Notebook and shelve them for later. My primary March goal is to get to 30,000 words in the weird Gothic story. 

I also want to be better at sticking to a writer’s habit – writing regularly throughout the week at appointed times.

Other goals: I want to get back into running again now that it’s getting warmer and lighter, practice guitar 15 minutes a day, and start learning French. 

Publication news

My latest short story is now live for $3/month Patreon subscribers. “Apartment 401B” is a weird, spooky story about what happens when that annoying noisy neighbor is more than they seem. Hope you enjoy it. My Patreon is here: http://www.patreon.com/teawhilewriting I have two stories free to read so you can get a taste of my writing style.

The pandemic, a year later

A little more than a year ago, I was able to start working from home in my day job as a legal assistant. It’s been a year since I have seen my parents or my friends, gone to a gym (though I work out at home) or eaten out at a restaurant. Conservatives would accuse me of living in fear, but I don’t see it like that. In many ways my life is better. I’m saving money, I don’t have the social anxiety of an office, I’m just as productive at home, and instead of leaving at 6:30 a.m. every day to commute for an hour to an office, I wake up at 5 a.m. and write or do yoga instead. It’s interesting how different all our pandemic experiences can be.

It’s also weird to think about how angry I was last March. Trump leaving office was like a pressure valve releasing. No, Biden isn’t perfect, and he shouldn’t be engaging in military action without Congressional review and we should pass a $15 minimum wage, but to make an equivalence between Biden and Trump is ridiculous. 2021 was always going to be dark, but I feel like a different person now. And not just because of politics.

The biggest change I made was that I stopped fixating on the behavior of others, and instead focused on small, positive things I could do for myself to make my life better, like journaling, exercise and routines. My anger taught me I care about others. I call and text my friends and family and have realized the importance of private discourse. I’ve reduced my screen time this year, only tweeting a few times a week. Last year I was relying on Twitter for a social life, and I got addicted, which didn’t help my irritability. Staying intentional with social media is hard because it’s designed to entrap your impulsive attention – you are their only product, after all – but I have learned the importance of boundaries and staying clear with my goals.

Anyway, now that I have settled into a quarantine routine, I find myself sliding back into my old habits of procrastination, and I think that is affecting my current levels of discipline more than anything else. The new “normal,” as it were. But was normal ever really all that great? I don’t think so. But I miss the mundane things. I miss popping over to a coffee shop for a soy latte. I miss browsing in a library and touching the spines of tattered paperbacks.

My goals moving forward are to lose my hypersensitivity to people; for example, when I’m out on a walk, I flinch when I run into other humans. Need to get over that or my anxiety will be off the charts when I feel more comfortable expanding my repertoire of activities when fully vaccinated, whenever that will be. I also hope to find a writing group to join, some kind of social activity I can do remotely to replace social media; and to watch more Zoom lectures, conventions, classes and poetry readings. So much is out there now that I don’t have to travel to; I might as well take advantage of it.

Reading

I am currently reading “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morganstern, a lovely, Gaiman-esque story about the magic of books; and my ARC from Netgalley is “We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep” by Andrew Kelly Stewart. 

I just finished “An Artificial Night” by Seanan McGuire, the third outing in her October Daye series, and that character continues to impress me. I also finished “A Rising Man” by Abir Mukherjee, an intriguing historical novel about a Scotland Yard detective who investigates a murder in 1919 India. It was well done, and I think I’ll continue on in the series. Follow me on Goodreads for more reading updates.

That’s about it for February. Same old, same old over here. But the sun is setting later in the day, crocuses, daffodils and trilliums are blooming, and vaccines are on the horizon; you could say spring is coming. So I am feeling hopeful. Now I just need to finish more stories.

January Wrap-Up and Looking at a New Month

Been neglecting my blog a bit so I figured it was time for a new post. I’ve mostly been focusing on reviews. I decided to change up my review plans this year a bit. I will blog all my reviews, even the negative ones, but I am going to write shorter reviews. If I stick with 500 words or less, then perhaps they will feel less like work.

Writing

I wrote one longer short story in January and submitted it, got a rejection in four days. I may look at it again and rewrite it to submit elsewhere, or I might just move on to other ideas. My shorter fiction has languished because I am focusing on longer works this year.

The NaNoWriMo project I started in November, the steampunk WIP, I was still working on until last month, and that clocked in at about 30,700 words. I am not sure I have enough “steam” for it, however; the plot seems stuck. It is still the longest fiction manuscript I have written in years, even if it is incomplete. I have decided to put that aside for awhile to focus on novellas. I think a novella will be a good transition length between short stories and novels.

I started a dystopian novella for a submission call from Black Hare Press, but I’m not really feeling that either. I have about 5,000 words in it so far and I’m not sure that idea has legs. Sometimes you have to write it out to get a feel for it. I am working on another novella which I am more excited about. The theme is “weird gothic” and so far I seem the most committed to this one, so I am waking up early every day and adding my 5 a.m. 1,000 words to it. We will see where that one goes.

So for February I may not write any short stories at all. I may just focus solely on the novella. I just want to finish more projects this year. I’m not concerning myself with quotas. I want to finish projects and I want them to be good. It’s a lot of pressure thinking about what kind of novel or novella you want for your debut; it’s almost like focusing too much on first lines. But that’s okay. Sometimes you have to keep your expectations low. It’s going to be another year of existential dread, I think; just have to see writing as stress relief.

Photography

I am digging my moody nature series so I hope to keep shooting a set every one or two weeks. Getting on Instagram again has motivated me to keep shooting. If people post pictures of themselves socializing with others, I just unfollow or mute them. That’s why I quit the last time. I couldn’t take the visual proof of people’s reckless behavior in a pandemic. It’s like someone shoving ice cream in your face when you’re on a diet, even if they mean well and take safety precautions. Had to clean up house and start all over again.

But now, I have a different mindset about it. It’s just an excuse to keep shooting.

What I’m Reading

I am currently reading “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine, last year’s Hugo winner, and an ARC from Netgalley, “We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep” by Andrew Kelly Stewart. I decided with the traditionally published books, other than the ARCs, I will do wrapups of my favorites with short blurbs for reviews. You can also follow my reading progress and reviews I don’t post here on my Goodreads.

Personal goals

I’m proud of myself for staying consistent with my exercise this year. Since December I have worked out at least three times a week. I go on walks on my lunch break, and after work I use my stationary bike and lift weights for about 40 minutes. I use an app on my phone called Strong to record my reps. I also do yoga about one or two times a week, in the early morning before writing or after dinner. I’ve been doing that for about a year and I can definitely see a difference in my flexibility and balance, even just doing it once a week. It’s good cross-training with weight lifting.

When the weather gets warmer I hope to put more energy into running again, but for now I’m sticking with the stationary bike and hiking for my cardio. I want to add in four times a week for weight lifting because I have a tendency to skip leg day.

Other than that I hope to keep up with practicing music and my crafts. Both have languished lately but I need to renew my focus for them on weekends. I decided instead of fixating on what I don’t have and how hard it is to quarantine and how angry I feel about the behavior of others, I would instead focus on non-social activities I can do at home. Knit more, write more, be more creative. It’s not to “be more productive,” it’s to have something positive to focus on, for stress relief and self care. 2020 was all about rage. 2021 is about creative relief and building better habits.

That’s about all. Can’t believe it is February already. January seemed to last a million years…

Moving past rejection as a writer

One of the most important challenges you will have to overcome as a writer is dealing with criticism and rejection. So I thought I’d share my own personal strategies for moving past rejection. 

When I made a living as a writer, I received the worst criticism of my professional career; it made me realize I was burnt out on writing and I quit for a few years. During my break from writing, I realized I don’t need external validation to be a writer, or for my art; and that has changed everything for me. I’m now writing more courageously than ever before, despite dealing with more rejection and criticism as a creative writer than I ever did as a journalist. 

You are a writer whether you are published or unpublished. You are a writer whether you are self- or traditionally- published. You are a writer no matter how many book sales, fans, and readers you have. Please note, I did not say you were a good writer. I did not say you have talent. The point of this blog post is not for me to step in the shoes of your mother to give you a gold star for effort. But you don’t need skill or talent to keep writing. The only way to get good at a skill is not through some innate genetic gift bestowed upon you by the touch of God, but through hard work. You are a writer if you write, and you will become better at the craft the more you write.

So if you write, and write, but no one buys your books, and you can’t sell your work, does that mean it’s not worth doing? If you don’t have readers, and if you can’t quit your hated day job to live your glorious fantasy life as a working writer, is it a waste of time? I don’t think it is. If that’s why you write, you may want to question your motives, because Stephen King is a unicorn, even for traditionally published authors. You’re not less pure if you write for commercial reasons, but as a business model, writing fiction is a lousy one. There are a lot easier ways to hustle. Write technical manuals or advertising copy or website code instead; it’ll be way more satisfying from a business standpoint. 

Write because it brings you joy. Write because you have a story to tell that is screaming to crawl out of you. Write because you want to make an impact on the world. Write because you want to entertain yourself and others. Write because it’s stress relief. Write because by the hard work of unburdening yourself of your pain, you can write more authentically and touch other people.

If it pays your bills, write because rent is due and you need to meet your deadline to survive. Most of us don’t make our living exclusively from fiction, though; if you say you do, you’re probably not telling the truth about your teaching, editing and freelance gigs that supplement your fiction sales. If writing is such an obligation, why are you spending all these hours on it? Is it all for the approval of some stranger? If you can answer the question of “why,” then you can view feedback on your writing with a more objective lens.

For me, I write to leave a legacy. My words are the way I make a difference. I want to entertain people. I want to get published because I want to have a wider readership, but if my stories stay in my hard drive forever, I would still write, because I’m the most important reader. If I’m bored, then my readers will be bored. 

I find my validation from within. I can be happy no matter what city I live in, what job I have, or who buys my stories. I can be unhappy because of all these things, but these external influences do not define me. I realize that what anyone thinks of my writing says nothing about my worth as a person; I can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, in life as in writing, but I can learn from their criticism and use it to improve my craft. I can ignore it and move on if it appears to be nothing but a personal attack. On the other side of that coin, even though writing is a solitary act, feedback is important to grow. You know that you will have reached a more mature stage of your writing life when you reach out for critique groups and beta readers. 

If you change the narrative you tell yourself about criticism, then reader feedback can be useful, instead of damaging. And no matter how you want to get your work out in the world, you’ll have to tell yourself a story about why you want to write, and why your writing matters. That will carry you through all the ebbs and flows of the writing life. It has for me. 

//

Ways to support Denise

Starship Earth

He doesn’t like this. The way the stars feel in his hands. All cold and rotten, slimy, like the fish he ate for dinner. He wants to clean himself. He desires to see his skin again. Empty of the callouses of the constellations.

Will it ever be home? Will he ever come apart at the seams and become stardust, like the time when he was 17 and a girl asked him on a date for the first time and he said no because he was afraid? Will it be like that?

Or will he become salmon skin, fragile, falling through the universe, atom by atom? Ripped apart? Torn at his sinews? Will he ever feel like that again?

Or maybe it is just a basketball and a court on a sunny day and it is his turn to shoot.

Flash Fiction: Yearning for Water

I present to you another piece in my series of unrelated flash fiction pieces. All photography is shot by me.

“Yearning for Water” 

Story and Photographs by Denise Ruttan

Kyra Bartleby emerged from the water, her skin icy at the sudden shock of air. She sat at the edge of the swimming pool and dangled her feet in the water to acclimate herself to the outside world.

Around her, the noise of the city pool boomed into a cacophony. There were the little kids taking their swimming lessons, their youthful laughter soaring. There was the hot tub where old people soaked. There was the outdoor pool that was still busy, despite the impending autumn chill. There were the teenage lifeguards, monitoring everyone. Kyra almost applied for that job. But lifeguarding was for people who wanted to be heroes. 

Most importantly of any of these, the high school swim team was starting practice.

Catching her breath, 16-year-old Kyra watched them, envy competing with resentment at their lean bodies and quiet confidence. Making the swim team was her goal. It was why she spent hours every day improving her stroke, speed and endurance. She was a junior this year. She was running out of chances. 

She didn’t have the money for a fancy swim coach. She wasn’t the fittest or the trimmest. After swim practice she would also run three miles home from the swimming pool. The evening air would choke her lungs and knife through her chlorine hair. 

Kyra knew all their names. Hannah, Mia, Beth, Sam, Liv, Brittany, Jessica, Rachel, Danielle. Melissa, Kelsey, Tiff. Shelby. Heather. Abby. Ashley. Courtney. She rattled down the list of the varsity girls. She even knew their eye color, and whether they brought their own lunch or bought food from the cafeteria. She knew what stickers they put on their backpacks and on their lockers. She knew their favorite bands and their preferred colors. She wanted to be one of them so badly that the need to belong was like a fire searing through her lungs. 

At first, they didn’t notice her. They were distracted. But then the whispers and stony glances started. They didn’t appreciate having a stalker, she knew. That’s what they called her. Their creepy stalker. But she just wanted to belong to something that was bigger than herself. Something that was bigger than her lonely home with her single mother and their shared pain. A mother who disappeared into a flood of vodka and reruns of Cheers. Something that was bigger than the microwave pasta and old textbooks and tears. She wanted to experience the discipline and thrill of competition. She wanted to be part of a team.

Kyra sighed heavily. It was time to go. She headed into the locker room.

Usually, the locker room was a hectic place, full of laughter and conversation. But today, strangely, it was empty. Kyra showered in silence. She could hear a pin drop. She spent an extra long time luxuriating in the heat of the shower running slick down her naked body.

Suddenly, her heart stilled. She was not alone. A woman, probably 18, but seeming infinitely more exotic than any teenager she knew at Garfield High School, took the shower next to her. She slicked back her bronze hair and stared at her through glassy emerald eyes. 

(Model: Katie/@the.freckled.peach on Instagram)

“Hi,” she said, her voice silk. “I heard you back there.” 

“You what?” Kyra felt that sensation you get when you walk through a strange neighborhood and were paranoid some guy would nab your backpack and assault you. 

“I heard you,” she said, more firmly. “I heard your longing. It was so very loud.” 

“My… what?” Kyra stammered. She wanted out of this shower. The water was suddenly scalding and uncomfortable. 

“You wanted to be part of something bigger than you,” the strange, beautiful woman said. “I can make that happen. You just have to want it, again, with me.” 

“I don’t understand,” Kyra said. “You’re weirding me out. Please leave me alone.” 

“Fine,” the young woman said. “Be like that. But you can have any wish. Just wish it in the next two minutes. And you’d better yearn for it. It’s in the yearning that you make it real.” 

The woman walked away, soap still in her hair. Water ran in rivulets down her perfect, tan back. Her shoulder blades looked like a cheetah’s when it was chasing after prey. Kyra stared, her mouth agape. 

Then, despite herself, she began to want. 

At first, she didn’t notice anything. The locker room was still empty. Not even a child throwing a tantrum. Heaviness bloomed in her chest. Then she stared down at herself. She was … changing. That was the only way to describe it. Her body was changing. 

Her fingers were growing … webs? She could not flex her knuckles. Her skin morphed into scales. Her hair disappeared into her scalp. She felt the rush of water in her ears like a symphony. She screamed as the water from the shower burned her skin. What was left of her skin. 

She found herself staring up into the drain in the floor. She fought a roar of panic. She was covered in blood and pus. She flailed. 

Then she heard voices. The little kid tantrums. The running feet. The mothers and their love. 

And the voices of the swim team. 

“Did you see that girl?” said Courtney, her voice contemptuous. 

“Oh, creepy Kyra?” Liz said, scoffing. “She was watching us again. She watches us all the time. What a loser.” 

Kyra’s rage replaced the panic. Rage at the way things were. Rage at her loneliness. Rage at the rejection. Rage at her mother. Water poured from her fingers. Water broke through the cracked cement of the pool that she loved. Her second home. Her home away from the home that didn’t want her. Now no one wanted her.

The rage turned into a flood. A flood of water. The water turned into a cacophony of pain. The water engulfed all. 

But the swim team girls stopped talking shit about her. 

They stopped talking. 

Kyra didn’t want to belong, any more. 

She was the water. 

///

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Flash Fiction: “Faery Dust”

I am going to be writing a series of flash fiction pieces to improve my chops to get ready to submit some for publication. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the shorter the work of fiction, the easier it becomes; because short fiction is hard and flash fiction is some of the hardest of all! Flash fiction is 1,000 words. Here is the first of these stories. It is a work of magic realism.

“Faery Dust”

By Denise Ruttan

Howard curls up inside himself, the cold cement hard on his ass. He has sat here all night. He clutches his backpack. This life is new to him. This staying out in the cold in his threadbare socks. He has not showered in weeks. He has not slept, because the backpack is all he owns and he doesn’t want anyone to steal it. 

It is that time of the morning when all is quiet. In the old days, he would go on walks in this hour before dawn. Most people think it is too quiet. But most people are used to their 9 to 5 and their comfortable office and their Saturday afternoons playing with the kids in the yard with the sun on their face. Howard’s hand is shaking. It does that when he remembers the past. The past is like an alive thing, like a separate thing from his mind, a place in time that he views with a mixture of scrutiny and wonder. 

Howard’s head is still swimming from last night’s booze. He is, in fact, still drunk. His neighbors stir briefly. Howard makes a decision. He stands. 

But Randy grabs his ankle. He feels like calloused sweat. 

“Don’t.” Randy is a schizophrenic. But his eyes meet Howard’s with a piercing clarity. “Don’t go at this hour. Wait. Wait. Wait.” 

“Why should I wait?” Howard humors the raving man. It is all he has left. The attention of others. 

“Not at this hour. The faeries. They like to steal people like us away. They love this hour. They dance on the empty city streets and make their mischief and cast their magic spells.”

“Oh, Randy,” Howard says. “Faeries are not real.” 

Randy’s clear blue eyes now fill with horror. Howard can’t help but be affected by the dread oozing from his body. Randy’s cold hand grips his ankle tighter, desperately. “Faeries. Faeries are real. Faeries are so real you will shit yourself. Don’t do it, man. Stay. Stay. Stay.”

“You must have taken some bad acid this morning, man.” Howard finally kicks Randy away. Randy starts shaking more violently and begins to sob. The sound violently punctures the stillness. 

Howard wraps his blanket around his shoulders in the cold. He leaves this sidewalk with its illusion of safety and its stench of piss and booze and helplessness. 

He heads into the light. It glints off the buildings. The sun is beginning to rise. But there is still too little of it just yet. Howard loves this hour. He thinks of it as the magic hour. He breathes in deeply. This is a downtown shopping mall. He sees Macy’s and other department stores towering above him. His eyes glitter. He misses the days when he could go into these stores and buy whatever he wanted. All he had to worry about was paying down his credit card. He misses material comforts. He doesn’t want to buy anything in those stores now, but he misses them, just the same. 

There is no one out today. That is unusual. This isn’t a large city, but it should not be an empty one, even at this hour. 

Howard can feel the beating of his heart, pounding away in his ears. He tugs the thin blanket closer around his shoulders as a biting wind sweeps crumpled newspaper up from the sidewalk and swirls it around with vigor. 

Howard walks aimlessly. He wanders through the bus station parking area. There are not even any people waiting for early buses. That part compounds the eerie feeling that makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. There are some buses parked along the street. Everything is empty. Everything is dead, like his life now.  

He takes a seat. In the old days, he would have taken out his smart phone. Connecting to people who aren’t real. People in the machine. Instead, he simply takes out his only cigarette, and smells the tobacco. 

The wind continues to rise. He thinks of Marlene, and her cool hands on his son Ned’s face when he was sick. He thinks of Ned’s laughter, his four-year-old laughter, and he wonders what the boy will grow to become. That world is a world that exists outside his head and beyond this one. A world he can never visit again. He must stop thinking about it. He must stop thinking about things that bring him pain. Tears prick his eyes. 

Suddenly, he notices a nearby presence. He thinks it must be a squirrel. But as he looks over, a small person, about two hands high, perches on the edge of the bench. She looks like Tinkerbell. He blinks his tears away. A drunken hallucination. Obviously. 

“Do you want the memories to go away?” He expects her voice to be small and quiet, but it floods his mind with a soothing cascade, like the sounding of Tibetan bowls. 

Without thinking, he says, “Yes.” 

“Done.” She nods.“Pain is gone.” 

Howard blinks. He looks over his shoulder again. For a moment he imagines he sees a cloud of little faery creatures, cavorting in the winds. They shriek with maniacal laughter. His stomach lurches in protest. 

He remembers… something. There was someone… But… no. The cobweb of memory fades, like a dream he forgot upon waking. He puts his hand out into the air and his skin feels clammy. What is he?  

He remembers his name is Howard. The rest? 

He blinks his eyes into the pounding wind, and sobs. 

Later, Randy will approach him as the being called Howard wanders the city, alone. But Howard doesn’t know him. Randy will hug him, the movement so unexpected that it takes Howard’s breath away. 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Randy will say, his voice hot with emotion. “I told you to wait. I told you to wait. I told you to wait.” 

Howard hugs him back, without knowing why. 

Perhaps he should have punched him in the face. 

//

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A few tips to take better photos from just your phone camera

Many people have more time on their hands now and want to learn new skills. Perhaps this is you and you’d like to improve your photography knowledge. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need an expensive camera to take good photographs; you just need a basic understanding of light and composition. A camera is just a tool, after all; and the best tool is the one you have with you.

Sure, you probably won’t be charging $200 an hour for a professional photo shoot on your iPhone. But these cameras have come a long way in recent years and are miles ahead of the point and shoots of even just a few years ago. I am an experienced photographer with six years shooting portraits and street photography, and time before that as a photojournalist. I thought I’d offer some photography 101 tips for you to shoot better camera phone photos. All these photos on this blog post I shot with my iPhone 6s. In fact, I have been shooting more with that camera than my Nikon D5100 recently. It’s more convenient, and less obtrusive.

Light

First, let’s talk about light. Why do your photos taken outside at noon on a summer’s day always appear hot and full of contrasts? It’s because of the height of the sun in the sky and what that does to light. Let’s talk about something called an exposure triangle. Even on a phone camera, you can practice these principles.

The exposure triangle is a photography term that refers to the aperture (the opening in the lens through which light passes to enter the camera), shutter speed, and ISO (aka the sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor). All these things must work together in order to create a correct exposure – one that is in focus, and not overexposed (the photo has too much light and is too bright) nor underexposed (too little light was recorded and the photo appears dark). Now, “correct” exposure is one of those rules that can be broken for effect, but only until you understand how they work and why they are important.

Now, you can’t manually control the shutter speed, ISO, or the aperture on a phone camera. That is the beauty of a DSLR, or a digital single-lens reflex camera. But a phone camera is a cheaper alternative, and one that you likely already have with you; who doesn’t have a smart phone these days? (I see you, flip phone and landline aficionados!)

On a phone camera, it is more about controlling your external circumstances in order to take a better photo. For example, you can control how much light enters the lens by shooting at different times of day. You can control the shutter speed to a certain extent by waiting until your subject is in focus before snapping the photo. You can understand that certain kinds of action sequences will never capture well with the limitations of a cell phone, no matter how advanced the technology.

Golden Hour

One of the foremost principles in photography is understanding which times of day provide the best photography light. “Golden Hour” is a term that is used to refer to an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset. Daylight is softer at this hour, without the sharp shadows of when the sun is higher in the sky. You can take some truly amazing natural light photographs only by sticking to this magic hour.

Try it with your selfies. Some of the best light in any house or studio is shot through a window. See where the direction of the sun is in comparison to the windows in your house (and I dearly hope you have windows). The window, especially if it has a curtain, often acts as a kind of a softbox for the light outside, softening it still further. Run a light capturing experiment. Take photos from the best-lit part of your house at different times of day. Try golden hour. Try high noon. Take photos of all different angles; pointing away from the window, toward the window, and spin around in a circle. (Just don’t take blurry selfies!) Record what times of day at which each photo was shot at. Even better if your window faces the sun from the south.

If you try this experiment of mine, feel free to share your photos and use the hashtag #spaceshipselfietest. I would love to see your results.

Composition

The final principle to talk about is something called “composition.” This word has so many different meanings in art. In music, it is a score of notes that are arranged in such a way as to form a symphony. In photography, composition too is an arrangement of parts.

Composition has different elements. For example: How do you deal with textures, shapes and patterns? We call them “leading lines” — when you capture the symmetry of lines in such a way that the eye naturally follows them in a pleasingly framed way. What’s the subject of the photograph and how do you position it in the frame? Do you have a cluttered background, or a clean background? How does the clutter in the background serve the story of the photograph? Since a photograph is a manufactured story, how we manufacture the elements of the story must make sense.

There’s also depth of field. This is to say, the distance between the nearest and the farthest elements of a scene, that provide context to the setting. Your camera will only be able to focus sharply on one object out of many in the scene, so how do you show distance, texture, depth? That is partly the artist’s choice. Sometimes you will see other elements in the photograph blurry around the focal point to show that depth.

You can draw inspiration from paintings, drawings and illustrations. A lot of people diss on photography because they don’t think it’s artistic. Anyone can do it because it is so accessible. So it is often seen as a “lesser than” art. It doesn’t take much of an eye to take a photograph. Or does it? Your “eye” as they call it in photography is what makes the photograph art.

Thus we come to the principle of the “Rule of Thirds.” This is another one of those “rules” that you must understand well in order to break it well. You can tell a novice because they immediately scoff at this concept and will break this rule poorly. One must master these basics in order to make a more sophisticated rendition of them.

The rule of thirds is a compositional element in which the image is broken up into three parts, both horizontally and vertically. The subject of the image is placed where those “leading lines” connect. This composition is pleasing to the human brain. We want to know where we should focus our attention. Try it. Try placing the subject of your image at the center of the frame, off to the left, off to the right. You can even do this with your selfies. See how differently your perception of the image changes.

Conclusion

So with a little understanding of the limitations of your device, a perception of light, and an idea of how to look in order to compose an image, you too can create better photographs, even with a smart phone. The elegance of this instrument is that you can take 1,000 photographs and delete them all if they suck. But try taking your cell phone photographs with a little more intention behind them, and watch how they will change and improve.

Good luck, and as they say in photography, just go shoot, already!

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