Monday, May 20, 2019

Into the Fire

The second book in the Love in Andauk series has a cover. And it has a description. We all know how I feel about covers. Here’s how I feel about writing a description. Arghhhh!

I need to take a story of thousands and thousands of words and boil it down to about two paragraphs. I need to introduce the two main characters without explaining how they end up together. I need to tell some of what happens in the book but not give away anything that happens in the book. I’m a little frustrated just thinking about it.

The blurb is how the book is marketed, and marketing is all about managing expectations. I need to sell it without overselling it. The book needs to meet or exceed expectations or people will be disappointed. But I can’t be too bland in describing the book or no one will want to read it in the first place. How do you say the book is really good but not really good? While also trying to avoid subjective adjectives altogether.

Even if I manage that, people are different. The exact same description will provoke different reactions and expectations from the various people who read it. So I need it to sound really good but not really good to the people who will like it just a bit better than they expected to like it. How is this accomplished?

I don’t know. Here’s what I do instead. I write a brief description of the book. I come back to it a few days later and change a few words. A few days after that, I delete the second paragraph. I think about it longer, then rewrite that second paragraph. I immediately add a word to the first sentence that I think makes all the difference. A few days after that, I change that word. Then I sit and stare at what I’ve written for a while. That doesn’t help, by the way. I delete a sentence and let the blurb sit a few more days. When I come back, I decide that sentence was actually good but don’t remember the exact wording. I start over and end up writing something pretty close to what I had before I started over. That’s when I figure I’ve done the best I can.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Fun Work

    “Where is your Christmas spirit?”
    “I think maybe you have enough for both of us.”
    Gaby shook her head. “That didn’t fly last year either. I’m not saying you have to go nuts. But you could at least get a tree.”
    “A tree? That takes more work than most everything else.”
    “But it’s fun work,” Gaby insisted.
                  --The Christmas Project

Wrong holiday? Maybe. But it fits with my theme. I have a theme this month because I had a couple different thoughts, and I’m going to try to tie them all together with this idea of work that is fun. If it seems as though I’m veering into a tangent at some point, just keep thinking fun work and everything will fit.

I was recently reminded of a time when I was about eleven or twelve years old. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to give up for Lent. My mom suggested that I could always give up time by adding something extra. It’s possible I interrupted her reading the church bulletin because I remember she was very quick to point out Stations of the Cross happening on Thursday evenings.

At the time, I had no idea what that was. My mom said it would probably only take about a half hour. Committing to a half hour a week sounded a lot easier than trying to come up with a specific dessert that I might reasonably expect to encounter during Lent but not at any times when it might be difficult to refuse.

We lived right down the street from the church (on a street named Church Street) so it was simple enough to walk there a few Thursdays. I loved it. It was the first time in my young life that I actually found myself looking forward to going to church. I think it was the story aspect that drew me in. Yes, it’s a sad, painful story. But I already knew it had a happy ending. I was born a sucker for happy endings. Then I had a different problem. Since I ended up enjoying the sacrifice, maybe it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. I was afraid it didn’t “count.” Clearly, I was missing the point.

Lenten sacrifices are not supposed to make us miserable. They are supposed to remove distractions to bring us closer to God. There can be joy in that. There should be joy in that. There is nothing wrong or shameful in realizing you don’t miss what you gave up, that what you gained was better. The prayer and fasting and almsgiving that are the hallmarks of Lent can be fun work. There’s my theme.

My job is fun work. I love writing. I love sitting around daydreaming about what might happen next. There are parts I don’t love. Sometimes I let in a little stress over a deadline or frustration over a scene that isn’t coming out as I envisioned. And sometimes I realize it’s already been a month since I posted anything to my blog and because I’ve been doing very little writing recently, I have to stretch really hard to connect what I have been doing to my regular work. 

Because we’re enjoying all this fun work of Lent, Easter is right around the corner. We figured out many years ago that a traditional egg hunt is a challenge with kids of different ages. If you hold the older ones back, they complain that the little ones will find all the eggs first. If you don’t hold them back, they snatch up all the eggs before the little ones can find them. I really didn’t like the way it turned into a competition. Breaking up fights over who saw an egg first does not fit under the umbrella of fun work. Plus, it might rain anyway.

Now I hand each kid a plastic egg with a clue inside about where to find the next egg, which will also have a clue and so on with a treat at the end. They’re all looking for different color eggs so no one has to get there first. The kids really enjoy it, and I enjoy putting all the individual hunts together. Creating word puzzles and bad poetry is fun work. It also has a happy ending when I get to watch the kids figure out the clues. However, I’m making twelve hunts for twelve kids this year, about eight or nine eggs each. That amount of work can be time-consuming no matter how fun it is.

This is why my books are sort of on hold. Everything Old releases this week though. Yea! That’s my happy ending. And now I have two themes. This wasn’t random at all.

Monday, March 11, 2019

What Do I Love About Asking for Reviews?

Everything.  The advance copies are ready. That means it’s time to fire up the sarcasm so I can write about my favorite part of being an author, seeking reviews. There are several reasons I love this. The first is figuring out where to send these not-quite-finished books. Review copies are free so it might seem that finding people to accept them would be easy. But reading a book and writing a review does take time. That can be a big ask. (If anyone happens to be thinking, “No, it’s not. I would love a free review copy,” please contact me.)

Any blog or review site that pops up in a simple search will be too inundated with requests to even notice mine. I don’t blame them; I’m only explaining why this process is so time consuming. I usually end up reading reviews on these sites and marking books I might like to read. Then I try to follow links to similar, less trafficked sites. These can be great, too. I get side-tracked reading various posts before I even get to the page that says the reviewer is no longer accepting requests, or retired from blogging two years ago or simply removed the contact info. Then I wonder where my day has gone. Who knew the internet could be so distracting?

This isn’t my first book. It’s not even my tenth. Because I’ve done this before, I can add the list of contacts I used for the last book.

But I have to cross off everyone who didn’t reply or said no to my review request.

Then cross off the people who accepted a copy of the book but never wrote a review.

I briefly reconsider because a new request might remind those people to feel guilty.

Make sure everyone knows I was kidding about that last step.

Cross off the people who no longer have an active blog or review site.

Now I can include the one contact left on the old list. Yea!

Eventually though, it’s time to compose a nice polite review request. This is probably the most fun of all.

First, I consider several greetings before settling on the traditional Dear ____.

Then I mention where I found the email while hoping that proves I read the site’s policies, confirmed my book fits in the categories accepted, and that I am not a robot. (Full disclosure: I still don’t know if I’m supposed to include the poles for traffic lights so I might be a robot.)

Write out the description of the book I’m offering.

Delete that. Insert a link to the goodreads page instead because it has more details.

Delete the link because it might make the message look like spam.

Write the description again and include a cover picture.

Delete that. What if the recipient is using a different email program that screws up the formatting and puts the cover in the middle of the text?

Decide that a link will be okay after all. It will keep the message shorter.

Spend several minutes lamenting that it looks like a form letter no matter how I word it. There’s just no way to keep it short and to the point without saying essentially the same thing each time.

Go back to including the full description.

Wonder how I thought anything that involves cutting and pasting looks less form lettery.

An hour later, send the message that is three simple sentences and a link.

Now here’s the real honesty. These words are difficult to write because of what I’m not writing. My past books have garnered more positive reviews than negative, and that gives me hope. But there have been reviews that included phrases like “cure for insomnia” and “most confusing book ever.” No matter how I word the request, each one I send includes implicit permission to publicly criticize or even abuse something I’ve spent the last few months pouring my heart into. I have to keep my sense of humor or I won’t be nearly brave enough to try again.

[My 13-year-old daughter read a draft of this post and said, “I want a review copy.” I wasn’t sure what to do with a possibly biased review so I’m including it here. “4 1/2 stars Everything Old was very fun to read. At a couple of points, I wanted to yell at the characters, though the “good guys” were overall likeable. If wanting to yell at the characters really bothers you, this book might not be for you. But if you are looking for a good romance with subtle humor, I’d recommend it.”]

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Very Silly Dream Come True

My next book now has a cover! Who wants to hear the story behind it?

I’ll tell it anyway.

The stories for most of my covers are fairly similar. It starts with me thinking up a picture of how I want the cover to look. Then I use a camera to capture this picture. It never works on the first try. Or the second or the third or… I usually end up beating my head against the wall for a while until the picture in my head decides it needs to change to match something I have to work with.

Then I have to put a title on it. Me and font don’t exactly get along. It’s not that I don’t like font. I love font. There are so many varieties. But that’s the problem, too many choices that all seem equally good to me. I keep slapping different titles on the cover until one of them screams “I’ll work!” or “Use me before your eyes start watering from staring at fonts.”

The cover for 
Everything Old was different. I didn’t know what I wanted it to look like. Given the title and description, a picture of old things seemed like a possibility. But I didn’t want really old things, dated was a better word. I needed a picture of old but not necessarily old old things. Who knows what vague means?

I went on a bit of a treasure hunt. I searched my house for things that fit this description. The only actual treasures are a couple of antique books. Both books on the cover are more than a hundred years old. Then I found an old phone and a cassette tape. The cloth and trim in the background are from a craft kit I inherited from my mom. The kit was packaged around 1970. My collected items now represented four decades and two centuries. This seemed like a good start, but how did I want to arrange this hodgepodge into a cohesive picture?

Well, at least twenty different ways, and I didn’t like any of them. I moved things around again and again. I asked for advice, which may have been a mistake. Everyone seemed to prefer the pictures with one of the books open. I took a lot more pictures while trying to prop open a fragile 150-year-old book without damaging it. None of them were quite right. I kept thinking I needed something to tie everything together. Then I had a thought, a memory. I’m old enough to remember when cassette tapes were the preferred media for music but not so old they weren’t popular when I was a kid. What kid didn’t long to pull out all the tape? It was always so tempting. A few times I actually pulled out a few feet of tape before I wound it back up feeling guilty.

Staring at my pile of random items, I realized I could literally tie it all together with the tape from the cassette. I’m no artist. I don’t know if pulling out the tape actually improved my pictures. But I know it was fun. I didn’t need that tape for anything. We don’t have anything that would play it so I’m not sure why it was even still in the house. Tape everywhere, pictures snapped, cover created. Woohoo.

Now the sad part. When I was finished and the tape was finished. I still felt the need to wind it up again. And I did.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

I Resolve to Make a Resolution

We’re more than a few days into January and I’m still wrestling with myself over a good goal for the year. I don’t really do professional resolutions. I do like to have a plan for what I hope to have accomplished by the end of the year. This year, I just can’t decide. This year, I only know I’m going to release… something.

I’m working on a new series called Love in Andauk. There will be four books in the series. In looking at my progress so far, my first thought is that I could get all four books released by the end of 2019. That sounds great. But it also sounds ambitious enough that I’m afraid to commit myself to it. I’ve been panicking a little at the idea.

Four books!? In a year? Do I really think I can pull that off?

Sure. I’ve done it before. Remember Hartford?

I remember how hard that was. Maybe I should plan on releasing two books this year and two next year.

But there are other things I want to write. How will I ever get to those projects if I spend all my time lollygagging in Andauk?

I know how much time it takes to write a book. Spending six months each is not lollygagging.

But how much time have I already spent on these books?

Okay. I can plan on getting three books out this year. If I say four and don’t do four, I’ll feel like a failure. I need a goal I know I can meet.

So I need an easy goal? Is that what I’m saying? Why don’t I just plan to be lazy all year because I’m starting to sound as though I don’t want to work at all.

That’s a bit dramatic. I didn’t say it had to be an easy goal, just reasonable. I do still have a lot of work to do to finish three books. And maybe I can say three and still try for four.

Who am I kidding here? If I’m trying for four then the goal is four. That’s what trying means. I can’t have a real goal and some sort of pretend goal. I don’t know why I’m making this so difficult.

Yes, I do. We all know why. I already admitted I’m a big scaredy-cat. For now, I will resolve to release the first book in April. Look for more information (and probably a giveaway) on Everything Old coming soon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Christmas Fiction

This month I will post a short piece of fiction in honor of the season. It’s written in first person, but it is fiction. Mostly.

I Let the Kids Help
by Amanda Hamm

We started our Christmas season by decorating the house. I had visions of a picturesque front porch when I got out the lights, good enough to miniaturize and put inside a snow globe. I let the kids help decorate. In fact, they eagerly did most of the work. When it was dark enough to appreciate our efforts, the scene didn’t look like a scene from a snow globe so much as some sort of lopsided explosion. The kids had swapped out flashers in every string and left a clump of lights where they’d gotten tangled in the bushes. I shrugged off the gaudiness because I figured the neighbors saw how much the kids helped.

I love Christmas cookies. I use the same recipe that three generations of our family have used. I let the kids help with the cookies, too. They fought over which color to add to the frosting and ended up with an ugly shade of brown. Of course, it was barely visible under the coating of sprinkles. Those cookies were crunchier than dry Corn Flakes. My sister-in-law nearly dislocated an eyebrow when we unveiled them. I made sure she knew how much the kids helped, but the knowledge did nothing to restore her eyebrows.

Then it was time to wrap the gifts. Again, I let the kids help. When I used to do this all by myself, the gifts were like snowflakes with no two alike. Each one had a unique combination of pretty paper, curled ribbon and neat tags. Now they were still like snowflakes, the paper kind that leave a disaster of tiny scraps in their wake. There were torn corners, patched wrapping paper, tape over everything and so much ribbon. I could already imagine my dad whipping out a pocket knife to get his open.

There was a tree at church covered in gift requests from families in need. I told the kids they could help me pick out one or two tags. They’re all really good at math so I can’t explain how they were unable to count to “one or two.” They brought me eight tags. I was too embarrassed to put some back so I went shopping for eight more gifts. The kids helped. They knew exactly what everyone would want and were unconcerned with cost. Our bank account would feel a pinch.

Christmas finally arrived and we looked at the options for squeezing church into the schedule. There was a Christmas Eve mass at 7 PM, perfect for an early dinner and getting everyone to bed more or less on time. Or one late on Christmas morning with no need to rush breakfast. The kids wanted the least convenient option. They wanted midnight. My husband didn’t want to drag himself out of the house in the middle of the night any more than I did. But we couldn’t remember the last time the kids were so excited about going to church so we let them help with the schedule.

It was around 12:20 AM when I was listening to a gospel reading about the birth of Jesus with heavy eyelids. The lights in the church were dimmed and the candles shone brightly. The calm reading, the semidarkness, the arm of my husband on which I leaned… these things wanted me to close my eyes. My mind began to replay our preparations for the holiday. I saw colorful flashing lights and ugly but still delicious cookies. I saw my kids with big smiles holding presents that were not for them. I saw the stockings they’d tried to use as a behavior ranking system and the Christmas cards they insisted on signing with code names.

I realized that my daydreaming was in danger of turning into real dreaming. I would not allow myself to sleep through the very event we’d been preparing for. I sat up straighter and forced my eyes open just as the reading finished. It was followed by a moment of silence, a moment so quiet and still that I felt God’s presence more clearly than I had in years. It was a moment I would have missed at a more convenient time, a time when I wasn’t trying so hard to pay attention. The kids brought joy and enthusiasm to everything we did that season. And they brought me to that moment of peace. I’d never been happier that I let them help.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Never the Wrong Time of Year

I am grateful for all my readers. I am especially grateful when any of those readers takes the time to write a review of my work, maybe even one that includes words like “loved” and “best ever.” No, I’m not hinting at anything. That just seems like the most obvious place to start a list of thanksgiving. Good reviews make me overflow with gratitude.

I can find gratitude in less obvious places though. I was recently celebrating the completion of a first draft. I celebrated partly because that draft felt as though it took forever to write. Mixed in with the gratitude that it was finally finished was more gratitude that I have the luxury of spending “forever” on a book. One of the reasons it took so long was that I chose to put it aside when my kids were out of school. I am certainly grateful for that freedom.

But I’m also grateful that Book 2 of this series is unlikely to take as long. Its first draft is already about three quarters written. I was working on it so intently that I ended up writing about half a page in the dark.* Then I was grateful I was able to read those words. It was not easy though. I had to be a little grateful for all the practice I have at reading my own lousy handwriting, which probably makes everyone grateful the final draft with be typed.

I’m grateful that I’ve settled on a title for Book 1 and that, wonder of wonders, I even have a title in mind for Book 2. Despite a lot of time and frustration, the series itself still does not have a title.  Still does not have a title. Where in that is the opportunity for gratitude? I’m not sure yet, but I'm sure I will come up with something just as soon as I come up with a title.

* The story there is that I took my notebook with me to write while I was waiting to pick up one of my kids. I underestimated the effect the time change would have on the situation.