Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Study Group - Part 2

This is, as the title suggests, the second installment of this short story. Go to my last post to read from the beginning.

----
The campus was mostly quiet as Annie and Mallory walked back to their dorm.  Indistinguishable voices came from somewhere in the distance, traveling far on the night air.  The sidewalk was well lit, but the cold hurried them along with little appreciation for light with no heat.
“Man, that study group is getting awkward,” Mallory said.
“You mean Hannah and Aaron making moony eyes at each other?”
“Sometimes they’re a little too cute.  But I’m talking about your little triangle.”
“My what!?”
Mallory laughed.  “Oh, my goodness, this is you.”  She put on a high squeaky voice.  “What are you working on, Carlos?  Can I sit on your lap for a better look?”
“I do not sound like that.”  Annie tried to act innocent, but she was cringing on the inside.  She had to admit she’d been getting pretty obvious with her attention to Carlos.  She wanted him to notice but not anyone else.
“Meanwhile, Jake’s all… Look at me, Annie! Look at me!  Why don’t you just go out with Jake?” Mallory asked.
“Why?  So you can date Carlos?”  A bit of jealousy flared up.  Not about Carlos specifically but simply because Mallory was very pretty, with long legs and a charming southern accent.  Annie wouldn’t want to compete with her for any guy.  Sometimes she had to remind herself that standing next to Mallory wasn’t a competition. 
“Relax,” Mallory said.  “I’m not interested in Carlos.  Why do you like him so much?”
“Are you kidding?  He’s like tall, dark and handsome personified.  If, um, that didn’t already…”  Mallory was beginning to chuckle at the fumbling description.  “Come on,” Annie said, “you know what I mean.  It’s too cold to be eloquent.”
Both girls quickened their steps to acknowledge that the weather was pretty typical for February in Ohio. 
“Fine,” Mallory said.  “You like the way Carlos looks.  But what do you like about him.”
“Don’t make me sound shallow.  There’s nothing wrong with noticing that a guy is good-looking.  You make it sound like that’s the only reason I like him.”
“You haven’t said any other reasons,” Mallory pointed out, a little too smugly for such a good friend.
Annie tried to think of how to erase the smugness.  “I like his sense of humor.”
“Cliché.”  Mallory dismissed the reason.  “And Jake is funnier.”
“Carlos takes school seriously.  I admire that.”
“No, he doesn’t.”  Mallory didn’t sound smug anymore.  Now she was looking at Annie as though she was delusional, which was not better.
“What do you mean?” Annie asked.  “He keeps a record of all his scores for all his classes to monitor his grades.”
“That’s because he needs to keep a C average to keep his scholarship, and he doesn’t want to accidentally do more work than necessary.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.  He’s said it more than once.  I think you must have been too busy smelling him to use your ears.”
 Annie’s face burned despite the cold wind.  The others could tell when she was enjoying the scent?
“Don’t worry,” Mallory said.  “I think it’s only obvious to me because you told me.  But… I have to say that Jake seems to put forth good effort out of respect for his teachers and the money his parents are spending.”
“Why do you keep bringing up Jake?  Do you have a thing for him?”  She knew it was a stupid question before Mallory laughed.  She wouldn’t be trying so hard to convince Annie of his merits if she wanted him for herself.
“I just… I can see you two together.  And clearly Jake can, too.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen.”  Annie didn’t want to talk about Jake.  She’d rather talk about Carlos.
“Are you sure?  Because he’s not giving up.”
“What makes you say that?”
Mallory laughed with disbelief as she pulled open the outer door to their dorm and held it for Annie.
Annie walked through.  “Thanks.  Now why are you laughing at me?”
“Either you’re blind or you’re even more distracted by Carlos than I thought.  You didn’t notice Jake offering to help you with non-existent homework?  And did you really think he wanted all three of us to join him for a snack?”
“Hmm…”  Annie frowned as she began to climb the stairs.  Their room was on the third floor.
“Why won’t you go out with Jake anyway?”
 “I don’t know.  I guess… there’s just no spark there.  Wouldn’t I be leading him on if I went on a date with someone I’m not interested in like that?  He’s more of a friend.”
“One date isn’t leading him on,” Mallory said earnestly.  “It’s giving him a chance.”
“I wish Carlos would give me a chance.”
“Then you know what you have to do.”
“I do?”  Annie sent her friend a questioning look as she began to unbutton her coat.  Climbing stairs was an efficient way to warm up.
“I really don’t know if you have a shot with Carlos, but I don’t think you can find out until you go out with Jake.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.  Why would going out with one guy give me a chance with another guy?”
“Well…”  Mallory’s steps slowed as her mind picked up the pace.  “It’s not like I’ve sat down and had a conference with the guys so maybe I’m way off… but I think Carlos feels like, sort of like Jake saw you first.  Or a less childish way of saying it.  I think he’s not going to make a move if he wants to, until Jake backs off.  So you need to prove to Jake that there’s no spark to get him to do that.”
“I’m not going out with him,” Annie said.  “I’ll just have to tell him to back off.”

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.