Monday, June 19, 2017

Same Stories, New Presentation

Book covers are hard to make. Or rather, good book covers are hard to make. Do you want to know why? It isn’t because I have the artistic skills of a suitcase. Or because I was designing book covers for about eight years before I even learned about the rule of thirds. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I use ancient software that crashes all the time because I don’t want to relearn how to do anything. I’ll tell you why it’s hard.

Define good.

Go ahead, I’ll give you a minute.

What makes a book cover a good book cover? You might say it’s a cover that makes someone want to read the book. Not necessarily. A book cover can’t appeal to just anyone. It has to appeal to the same people who will enjoy the story on the inside. If you’d laugh or cry at all the parts I want you to laugh or cry but can’t get past the cover, then I have a problem. If the cover makes you read my book and then write a painful review about how the story made you want to gag, that’s not exactly working for me either.

Right now I’m reading Fire & Ice by Mary Connealy. I would never have picked up this book based on the cover. It has a giant face on the cover. I never like people on covers because they never look like the main characters they’re supposed to look like. Sometimes it’s just because I know the people are models. Sometimes it’s because they don’t look like the characters they’re supposed to look like. In this case the main character is described as having curly hair and hazel eyes. The woman on the cover has straight hair and blue eyes. I get a twinge of irritation every time those descriptions pop up to remind me the cover doesn’t match. But if I get around to writing a review for the book, I won’t mention the cover. I only mention it now to point out that I’m willing to bet Mary Connealy also has fans who think the cover is wonderful.

Good means different things to different people, even people who like the same books. Sometimes a variety of opinions is a beautiful thing. And sometimes, when it comes to book covers, it’s kind of annoying.

I’m trying again to define good for one of my own covers. I wrote Meet Cute in 2013. It’s a collection of short stories that have always been intended as free samples. Lately, far fewer people have been downloading the freebies. I know this is partially because the marketplace is swamped with other freebies. I can’t help but wonder if it is also because I was stubborn on the cover.

People told me it wasn’t good before I released it. But I liked it. I’ve had plenty of complaints since. I’m trying to replace it now to see what happens. This is an experiment to see if more people like the new cover. It doesn’t have anything to do with me admitting I was wrong about the old one. I can’t be wrong about an opinion. And neither are the people giving me conflicting opinions on which redesign is better. We’re all right, and that isn’t helping me at all.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Daydreamer's Block

I’m afraid progress on my next book has been very slow. And when I say slow, I mean

s

l

o

w.

The basic idea first came to me well over a year ago. I was in the middle of the Coffee and Donuts series at the time, and the idea didn’t fit within that series. It mostly didn’t fit because I knew it would need a much longer timeline than the three weeks in each of those books.

I get ideas I don’t have time for all the time so that wasn’t a big deal. I wrote out some notes and tucked them away for after I finished that series. But by the time I’d finished the last Coffee and Donuts book, my kids had been asking me to write something for them for a lot longer. I pulled out my notes for Wisherton instead. I only intended to write the first book for that series. I dove straight into the second one.

Once book 2 was done, I was finally ready to go back to that other idea. I hunted the notes for what I planned to be my next book.

I couldn’t find them.

I spent several days (on and off) flipping through notebooks in what I thought was a very organized system.

The notes did turn up. But I had been thinking about the project while I searched for those notes and what I thought I wrote didn’t quite match up with what I actually wrote. I had to decide where to correct my notes and where to correct my thinking, which felt an awful lot like starting over.

I think it was my resistance to starting over that made the story and characters harder to imagine. Every time I tried to picture a scene, my brain rebelled and started thinking up chores I could do instead. This strikes me as thoroughly backwards. For a lot of people, daydreaming interferes with getting work done. For me, daydreaming is how I get work done. I need to get the book in my head before I can get it on paper. My head just hasn’t been cooperating.

Don’t worry, I don’t give up easily. I will persevere. I will keep trying until I can spend full days absorbed in a fantasy. Then I will finally be making progress.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Back to Names

When thinking of what to post this month, I kept looking at last month’s post because… I don’t know. I really don’t know. I didn’t know what to write about and the only thing I knew I wasn’t going to write about was what I already wrote about. So I kept looking at and thinking about how I wrote about names last month because apparently I thought an old topic was going to help me think of a new topic. It was a completely pathetic circle that went something like this:

What should I write about?

I wrote about names last month so that rules out names.

Guess that means I should write about something other than names.

Not names, not names, not names.

What did I write about last time?

Oh, yeah. Names. I should write about something else.

But what should I write about?

Well, last month was names.

I already decided not to write about names so that isn’t helpful.

What should I write about this month?

Probably not the same topic as last time which was, of course, names.

I really need a new topic.

And then something happened that made me reconsider revisiting names. Someone asked me how to pronounce Samtry, a name from my Wisherton books.

I’ve never liked it when an author uses a name I don’t know how to pronounce. Let’s imagine someone is reading a book with a character named Tabeiallqp. How do you pronounce that? Is that a long a or a short a? Are there two vowel sounds in the middle? Where is the accent? Is the q or the p silent because something doesn’t seem right there? Whoever is reading this book is going to pause to consider questions like these every time the name appears. Every single time. Annoying.

Most readers will settle on a pronunciation in their heads at some point in the book, but by the end they’re still at least sort of thinking of Tabeiallqp as “that guy with the weird name.” That undermines some of the effort the author put into the characterization. Maybe Tabeiallqp was tough and sarcastic but a little sensitive when necessary. The reader will remember him as tough and sarcastic but a little sensitive when necessary and always irritating because of the constant tripping over his name. (In case you’re wondering, it’s Ta-BAIL-quip.)

But enough about Tabeiallqp.

I didn’t mean to give anyone a difficult name. Samtry’s name was given to me out loud before I saw it in print so I never considered that it might suggest alternate pronunciations. I posted an excerpt from Beyond Wisherton last month, and since I’m already on reruns it seemed like a good idea to post another excerpt. To clarify any confusion on pronunciation though, I’m offering this excerpt as audio. Here is chapter 1 of the second book, Back to Wisherton.




Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Beyond Names

I’m bad at names. I don’t mean that the way a lot of people mean it though. I’m usually able to identify the people around me. I don’t have trouble remembering names; I have trouble coming up with them in the first place. Too often when I name a character, the name sounds like something I just made up. Of course I made it up. That is the whole idea of fiction. I have no issues about making up the story, but for some reason the names feel awkward at first. They’ve usually grown on me by the end of the book.

Things were a little different for my upcoming children’s books. Beyond Wisherton and Back to Wisherton are fantasies. The characters can do things that no one in real life can do; it doesn’t matter if some of them also have names that no one has in real life. That was a very freeing experience. It also helped me just a little bit that I let my kids name half the characters. Okay, that was awesome. I’ll share some of those names within an excerpt from the first book. This is from chapter 1 of Beyond Wisherton.

 Yavic and Lolly Find Out


“I think I have a gift,” Sevra said, her eyes pleading with her brother to understand, “but I swear I don’t know how I got it.”
Yavic couldn’t make any sense of what his sister said.  She never did anything wrong.  She was the last person who would ever be tempted to join the Herders.  She was the last person who would even joke about it.  “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“A gift,” Sevra hissed.  “I have one.”
She did not have a gift.  Yavic was quite certain of that.  Sevra had barged into his room while he was trying to do his homework.  She’d looked into the hallway and closed the door behind her.  She was sitting on the end of the bed, wringing the corner of his blanket tightly between her hands.  Sevra was clearly upset about something and whatever it was, it was probably more interesting than the equations he was supposed to be solving.  Yavic turned in his chair, away from his desk and towards his sister.  “What makes you think you have a gift?”
“I don’t think it,” she said.  “I know it.”
“You said you thought it.”
“I was trying to prepare you.”
Yavic sighed at her overly dramatic tone.  “Prepare me for what?”
“For”  She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  “This.”
“This?  You wanted to prepare me for a boring conversation?”
“No, for”  Her head jerked sideways to look at the door as it opened.
“What are you guys talking about?”  Their little sister poked her head through the door.  Lolly’s deep brown eyes were wide with curiosity.  Everyone else in the family had green eyes.  And a safer level of curiosity.
“Get out!” Sevra snapped.
The eyes shifted in response to the reprimand.  Lolly closed the door slowly, watching her siblings the whole time.
Sevra was battling too much fear at the moment to register any guilt for dismissing her sister so roughly.  She still wasn’t sure it was a good idea to tell Yavic.  Lolly was only eight years old.  There was no way she could keep it a secret.
“Sevra,” Yavic said, “what is going on?”  He was looking at her with more concern now.
“I have a gift.”  It got a little easier to say each time.  Easier, but no less terrifying.
“You said that already.  Why do you think you have a gift?”
“I’m too strong.”
“How strong?” he asked.
Too strong.”
“How do you know you’re too strong?”
This conversation was not going at all the way Sevra had pictured.  She expected Yavic to be as freaked out as she was as soon as she told him.  She felt an odd sort of gratitude towards her older brother for peppering her with annoying questions instead.  She suddenly wanted to laugh.  “Stand up,” she said.
Yavic did as she requested.
Sevra also stood and she picked him up.
Yavic didn’t think that proved anything.  Though he was fourteen and Sevra was only twelve, she was two inches – all right three – taller than he was.  It wasn’t inconceivable that she would be able to pick him up.  The fact that she didn’t appear to struggle at all only made Yavic embarrassed about possibly being too skinny and not concerned that his sister might be “too strong.”
One look at her brother’s face made Sevra put him down.  “What do I need to do to prove it to you?” she asked.
“Um”  Yavic surveyed the items in his room.  There was a chest in the corner.  It was mostly full of books, and he knew he couldn’t lift it.  “Try that chest,” he said.
Sevra nodded and walked over to it without a word.  She lifted the chest easily.  Then, to make absolutely sure he believed her, she balanced it on one hand like a waitress with a tray of drinks.
“Wow,” Yavic said.
But his voice had an echo.  Lolly’s face was back by the door.  Her expression awed.  “How’d you do that, Sevra?”
Sevra quickly put the chest down.  The damage had been done though.  She sank to the floor with her head in her hands.  Panic threatened to swallow her whole.  They would find out.  This night could be the last she spent in her own home.
Yavic motioned Lolly into the room and tried to take control of the situation.  Sevra had a gift?  He knew in his heart it wasn’t possible.  There was no way she could have done anything to earn a gift from the Herders.  But how else could she have lifted that chest?  They had a serious problem.  Lolly knew, too.  That made the problem about three hundred million times more serious.  Maybe four hundred million times.
He looked up and down the hallway before he closed his door again.  The last thing they needed was for Samtry to wonder what the rest of them were doing.  He put a chair in front of the door to at least give them some warning.  “You cannot tell anyone,” he said to Lolly.  He tried to convey the importance of the command with his tone and his expression.  Though if Sevra’s crumpled form and whimpering sounds didn’t convey that they were in trouble, there was probably nothing he could add.
Lolly’s initial amazement had already disappeared.  She swallowed hard before she addressed her brother in a faint voice.  “Are they going to take her?”
He shook his head firmly.  He had no idea how he could make that true, but he was going to try.  “Not if we can help it,” he said.
Yavic lowered himself to the rug to sit next to Sevra.  Lolly followed his lead and looked between them.  No one said anything for what felt like a long time.  Sevra quieted at the show of support.  Her hands still mostly covered her face though.
“How did she get it?” Lolly asked.
Yavic glanced at Sevra, who did not have her ears covered.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I’m sure it was a mistake.  Some kind of mistake.”
Lolly nodded with conviction.
Sevra saw it between her fingers.  She saw that neither her brother nor her sister believed she had crossed over.  A bit of the pressure squeezing the breath out of her loosened.  She put her hands in her lap.  “You believe me when I say I don’t know how I got it?”
“Yes,“ Yavic said.
“Of course,” Lolly added.
“Thank you.”
The way Sevra was looking at Yavic made him uncomfortable.  It looked as though she was about to hug him or something.  “Look,” he said, “we all know you’re the good kid.  It’s really obnoxious the way you go around trying to please everyone all the time.  It isn’t shocking to think you haven’t turned your back.”

Friday, February 10, 2017

Some Probably Nevers

I’ve never liked it when a love story uses a significant other as an obstacle between the main characters. Usually, the plot tries to prove the extra guy (or girl) is a conniving jerk who doesn’t deserve happiness so no one feels bad when he eventually gets dumped for the hero. My problem with this is that it usually ends up making the person who was dating the conniving jerk look foolish (or flighty or clueless or some other negative adjective) for being with him in the first place. Disliking a main character for being foolish doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion.

It’s why I once said I would never start a story with a main character involved with someone else. That was before a recent book in which I let the heroine change guys. I like to think I pulled off the switch without making anyone look heartless or gullible, but I’m not allowed to have an opinion on my own work. Regardless, I had to take back the never.

I have other nevers though, other things I keep seeing in books or movies and thinking “that will never show up in any of my books.” I’m going to be brave and post a list. I’ve learned not to say never so this is a list of things I will probably never, most likely never, seriously doubt ever use in a future story.

1) Anyone is compared to a celebrity. – Few things date a book like comparing the hero to some hot actor who turns out to be a flash in the pan or saying the heroine’s dark curls look just like some actress who has since chopped her hair and dyed it blond. But mostly these comparisons bother me because half the time they aren’t helpful.

- “Buddy had the same jaw and cheekbones as random famous guy and could have been mistaken for his younger brother.”

If I don’t know what random famous guy looks like, I can’t picture Buddy.

2) The heroine is cold. – There is something sweet about a man offering his coat to his female companion. It has an element of self-sacrifice, denying his own comfort for hers, that can strike a romantic chord. It’s overused though and rarely done well. It too often paints the woman as being too dumb to dress for the weather. That bothers me.

3) The hero has a “trim waist.” – I have no problem with a hero who’s described as being in good shape. It’s only this particular phrase that grates on my last nerve. I think it shows up in something like three quarters of the books I read when there are many, many more natural ways of saying that a guy isn’t carrying a spare tire. I have never heard this phrase in real life.

- “Hey, did you see that guy?”
- “Oh, yeah. Check out his trim waist.”

4) Failure to use a napkin. – I think movies are more often guilty of trotting out this trope. It’s an excuse for physical contact between the love interests but usually ends up looking far more silly than romantic. A woman takes a sip of hot chocolate and is somehow unaware of the glob of whipped cream on her nose. A man bits into a huge burger and ends up with mustard carefully dabbed on his cheek. They’re called napkins people. Who doesn’t have one handy on a date?

5) What were you going to tell me? – This is the most annoying sentence ever used to further a misunderstanding. It always plays out to make things worse in a truly ridiculous manner.

A man and a woman meet at a party. They hit it off and agree to see each other again. Sometime between the party and the first date, the man learns that the woman was mistakenly told he is a veterinarian. When he tries to clear the air, this happens:
- “I think I should tell you something.”
- “Wait! First, I need to make sure you know how much it means to me that you are a veterinarian. I’ve always loved animals and have dreamed of dating a vet my whole life. Now, what were you going to tell me?”
- “Never mind. It would be really awkward to tell you I’m not a vet right after you said that so I’ll just wait several more dates – while pretending to be a vet – until some pet emergency forces me to admit I’ve been lying to you.”

6) Anyone with mood ring eyes. – I think we’ve all seen eyes that appear different colors in different lighting or next to certain colors. But no one’s eyes change color. I cringe whenever I read about someone looking into someone else’s eyes and watching them change color, usually based on a mood shift. While the other quotes here are things I made up, the ones that follow are copied from real books by other people.

- “Her eyes were back to that lovely nut brown [as she calmed].”
- “As she raised one eyebrow, [her] eyes took on an amber hue.”
- “Would her eyes turn more green when angry?”
- “Her eyes darkened until they were no longer the tawny color of strong tea, but deep and rich, like the chocolate he’d seen imported from Europe.”
- “The blue of [his] eyes had darkened to the color of a stormy night sky.”
- “[It was] followed by a smile that brought out the caramel color in her hazel eyes.”

Eyes are amazing. They can say a lot just by narrowing or looking away. They can be belligerent or bold or elated. Eyes are powerfully versatile. Why are some authors trying to make them do this one thing they cannot do?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

We're Watching You

I know Halloween was a few months ago. I’m going to delve into creepy territory anyway by writing about ways that real life shows up in my books.

Of course my own experiences inspire and influence the stories I write. This isn’t a revelation.  I’ve even given examples. When I do use real events though, I fictionalize them. I shape the details to fit my story, to protect anyone who might be embarrassed, to protect myself from anyone who might yell at me for using the incident, to better amuse myself, or simply because I feel like changing something. This is my prerogative as a writer.

I do not alter details to make anyone I know say, “That’s not the way it happened.”

There are limits to how much I let real life seep into fiction. I have never and will never base a character on a real person. Just because a character says something my sister once said, that doesn’t mean I in any way imagine that character as my sister. It only means she once said something I thought was funny. Or poignant or clever. It means I remembered that particular turn of phrase and used it. That’s all it means.

I especially avoid using people I know for physical features. None of my characters look like anyone I know. If I was picturing my mom, I couldn’t make a character act foolish. If I was picturing my husband, it would be difficult to write dialogue I couldn’t see coming out of his mouth. But you know that line you hear about any resemblance to real people being entirely coincidental? That’s not entirely true.

That means a character isn’t intended to represent a real person. It doesn’t mean that character doesn’t have attributes the author has seen in real life. A guy in one of my books does resemble a guy I saw at church. A woman resembles someone I was watching at a playground. A lot of the descriptions I use are gathered by people watching. I might see a woman toss her hair or a man flip his keys over his finger and I save that image. Now that I’ve seen it, I can describe it.

I probably don’t live anywhere near you. But other authors do, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone. We’re on the lookout for interesting mannerisms. We’re watching you to find them. We’re noticing when you bump something with your elbow or wrinkle one side of your forehead more than the other. We’re noticing the way the light bounces off your hair or the way your sleeves are twisted. We’re noticing and we’re taking notes. Creepy yet?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Gratitude

Thanksgiving is coming. People are coming to my house to celebrate. I enjoy the planning that goes into the feast. I’m thankful that it’s one day of the year when no one gives me a hard time about my control freak tendencies. Everyone will have a place to sit, all the food will be ready to eat at the same time, and I’ll have most of the kitchen clean before everyone is done eating. Yet no one will say, “Do you always have to be so fastidious?” Attention to detail will be appreciated for a change. We’ll enjoy a meal and share our blessings because all kidding aside, my family gives me plenty of reasons to be personally thankful.

But how am I professionally thankful? What am I most thankful for as a writer? I could say readers. I could say getting to do what I love. Those are great answers and certainly sources of gratitude. What would I put at the top of the list though?

Ideas.

I am most thankful for the many kinds of ideas. There are of course good ideas, the ones that push a story forward. And there are bad ideas. I once had a character filling out a long survey, which made for very dry reading. I’m still thankful for the ideas that let me laugh at myself. I’m thankful for cute ideas. My kids have said things that I’ve worked into stories. I’ve received some wonderful suggestions over the years. They make me thankful for shared ideas. I’m even thankful for dumb ideas, like some of the things my brother did as a teenager. “Bush surfing” and “mud sledding” give me potential additions to future material. Above all, I’m thankful that I don’t have to worry about running out of ideas.

For fiction. I have serious doubts about ideas for blog posts. I mean, come on. Right now I’m trying to pass off thinking of ideas as an idea. Did it work?