Friday, September 22, 2017

The Study Group - Part 1

When I tried to decide what to write this month, I had a thought.  Two thoughts actually.  It was the second one that I found interesting.  The first thought was… I bet this would be easier if I could post fiction.  The second thought was… Who says I can’t?

I decided to pluck a couple of characters from my next book and give them their own short story to post here.  This story takes place about 11 years before They See a Family.  If all goes according to plan, the book will be released in January, and I’ll post the end of The Study Group shortly before that.

----

            “What are you working on today?” Annie asked.  She leaned closer, not so much to see but to smell.  Carlos smelled awesome.  She wanted to ask him what it was so she could get a bottle to use as air freshener for her dorm.  She had to wait though.  Why do you always smell so awesome seemed more like a second date question and they hadn’t even been out once yet, much to Annie’s disappointment.
            “Statistics,” he said.
            “Oh.”  Her nose wrinkled, despite the pleasant scent.
            “Not a fan of statistics?”
            “Let’s just say I’m glad I only needed one semester.”
            “I could help you with statistics.”  Jake leaned across the table with an earnest expression.
Annie sat back.  “I took that last semester,” she reminded him.
He nodded.  “I remember.”  His eyes stayed wide as though he was still offering.
“So I don’t need help anymore.”
“I think this semester seems to be going better for everyone,” Hannah observed as she looked around the group.  There were six of them at the table, all sophomores.  They went to the same church and formed a study group at the beginning of the school year.  Since they were mostly taking different classes, they usually just sat together while they worked on different homework.  Sometimes they did help each other study, and sometimes they talked so much that nobody got any work done.  Hannah’s eyes lingered on Aaron longer than anyone else.  They’d recently started dating.
“Yeah,” Annie said, “I know Mallory’s as glad to be through that tough English class as I am to be done with statistics.  That class was a huge disappointment.”
Mallory was on Annie’s other side.  “You actually thought it might be interesting?” she asked.
“Sort of.  I mean, when I think statistics, I think of a bunch of cool facts.  Like this percentage of people use their right hand even though they’re left-handed and one out of every so many cows has twins.  But the class was like memorize this formula.  Now memorize this formula.  You need to know all six of these formulas for the test.”
Everyone at the table laughed at her impression of the class until Carlos shushed them.  “Quiet, guys,” he said.  “I’m trying to memorize a formula here.”
Then they laughed harder.
Annie leaned over his paper again.  “That does look vaguely familiar.”
“You’re interested in left-handed people?”  Jake twirled his pencil while he talked, in his left hand.  Annie hadn’t noticed he was left-handed before.  She knew Carlos and Hannah both were.  The fact that half the people at the table were left-handed was probably statistically significant in some way and far more interesting than the whole semester of formulas had been.
Mallory poked her in the back.  “Your idea of what constitutes a cool fact is a bit of a stretch.”
Annie rolled her eyes at herself.  “Well, I didn’t have time to look anything up.”
“Is there such a thing as a cool fact?”  Hannah hitched her eyebrows together skeptically.
“Sure,” Jake said.  “There are whole books of weird but true things.”
“Weird, not cool,” Hannah said.
“Weird can be cool.”  Carlos tipped his head as though giving the matter serious thought, probably more serious than it deserved.
Annie found this serious nature attractive.  It wasn’t as though he went around brooding or anything.  He just seemed more mature than a lot of the young men at school who thought bodily functions were necessary for comedy.  “I agree,” she said.  “At least sometimes.  But I was talking about statistical facts, not which animals can turn their tongues upside-down.”
“But what about the percentage of animals who can turn their tongues upside-down?”
Carlos smiled and said, “Good one, Jake.  I bet that’s a small number.”
Carlos had a nice smile and a nice serious face and Annie could not inhale often enough whatever that great scent was.  Why were they talking about tongues?
“Ow!”  Annie turned around as she felt another jab in her ribs.
Mallory handed her a notebook.  “Here.  Quiz me on those names again.”
“Okay.”  She took the notes and began to go down the list.  It was difficult not to laugh whenever Mallory struggled for an answer.  She’d open and close her mouth while she twirled red curls around her fingers.  It almost looked as though she was treating herself like her own ventriloquist’s dummy.  They were working through the notes a second time when Hannah snapped a textbook closed.
“Wow,” she said, “I can’t believe how late it’s gotten.”  She stuffed her book into a bag.
“You’re always the first one to turn into a pumpkin,” Mallory teased.
“Sorry, guys.  I’ve never been a night owl.”  Hannah had stood and was putting on her coat.
Aaron was gathering his things as well.  “I’ll walk you back.”
Hannah paused long enough to turn gooey as she thanked him.  The others waved as the two of them walked away from the table holding hands.
“How about those of us who are night owls head over to the Sundial for a late night snack?” Jake suggested.  “I’m thinking French fries.”
“Sorry, man.”  Carlos was the first to answer.  “I gotta stay put.  This is due tomorrow.”
“Anyone else?”  Jake’s eyes landed hopefully on Annie with little flickers over to Mallory.
“Count me out,” Mallory said.  She was collecting her books and papers.  “Even though I gave Hannah a hard time, I should get to bed, too.”
Annie hurriedly stuffed everything she brought into her bag to keep up with Mallory.  “It is probably time to call it a night.”  She grabbed her coat and put it on as she and Mallory left the library together.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Real Setting, an Imaginary Problem

I think the biggest challenge with the book I’m working on now has been location. Location, location, location.

My last two series, Stories From Hartford and Coffee and Donuts, were set in fictional towns. I wanted to be able to imagine the places any way I liked. I even went so far as to have a character in one of the books refuse to name her previous hometown because I didn’t want to suggest proximity to any real place.

For this next book, I decided to plant my characters in northern Ohio near where I grew up. Then I began to question that decision. How specific should I be? Did I want them to live in a real town? On a real street? Should they visit stores or parks that really exist? Did I want to let nostalgia paint the area as it was when it was my home? Or did I want the changes I’ve seen in more recent visits to make the setting up-to-date? If I used a real location, would that invite the assumption that some elements were inspired by real people or events as well? Was I opening myself up to criticism if I took any creative license or had a memory lapse?

These were some of the questions I had before I even started writing the book. Once I dove into the first draft, the questions began to fade away. Working in real places could have sounded like random name-dropping because the location didn’t come up all that much. When one character mentioned that the weather was nice enough to take the kids outside to play, no one said, “That’s right. The weather here in Ohio can be a bit unpredictable so we’re lucky to have this warm day in April.” No one expounded on the fact that the yard was good and flat because of the glaciers either. And when that same character came home from work, he never said, “Guess what? I drove past Lake Erie again today.”

My characters aren’t visiting landmarks on a regular basis. Or at all. They aren’t tourists. They don’t spend any time listing the positive and negative qualities of where they live. No one sits at a window gazing out while describing all the beautiful cornfields or Sears Catalog homes. They simply live there.

I got what I wanted in the end, which was to remember a familiar setting while I wrote. Location turned out to be a challenge only because I’m kind of neurotic. Fortunately, that was familiar, too.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Other Side of the Notebook

I’m hoping to release my next book by the end of this year. This seems like a good time to check on my progress towards that goal. This is for me as much as anyone else. I took a break from writing for about three weeks. I had some volunteer commitments and a family vacation and… well, even those of us who work from home need a break now and then.

The first thing I had to do when I resumed work was to remind myself where I was. That meant flipping through the notebook, the current notebook.

I have a whole drawer full of notebooks from previous projects. Sometimes I enjoy looking through the old ones. I find arrows and crossed out pages and asterisks and notes in the margins and a generally complicated system for telling myself how everything should eventually be typed out. The only time I am not amused by the scribbles and notes is when I’m actually trying to decipher them.

Fortunately, the current notebook is fresh enough in my mind that I can remember why I wrote a seemingly random string of numbers across the top of a page. I read through a few pages here and there but mostly focused on the last chapter or two to reimmerse myself in the story. I can’t explain to others where I am without sharing details of the plot, but I can say that I have made it to the other side of the notebook.

Not every story starts at the beginning of a notebook. I try not to waste paper so I’ll usually start a story on the page after the last one ended. If I’m working on two (or more) projects at once, I’ll have two notebooks going at once. I remember one book that spanned four different notebooks because I was trying to use up several that I’d started. That was a fun one to type.

The current story did start a new notebook. I only use notebooks with the spiral on top. I write all the way through on one side, then turn the notebook over to write on all the backs of the pages. It always feels like a significant milestone when I turn over the notebook, especially if I know I’ve just filled an entire side. It’s also a bit of a distraction. Once I know there is writing on the other side, I’m constantly tempted to turn it over to see what was happening back there. If I’m far enough into a book that I can look back and see changes, then I know I’m making progress. There’s a baby in this story. He had a different name on the other side of the notebook. That probably means I’ll be done on time.

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.”