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.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Progress Report

I finished the first draft of a book this week. I love to be able to say that. Finishing the first draft is my favorite part. It’s a big step toward the next book and gives me a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I’m totally stuck on names. Again. Naming characters is getting harder because now in addition to all the other considerations I feel as though I can’t reuse names I’ve already used. At least not for main characters. Let’s talk about some of those considerations.

Names need to fit the characters. Most of the time, a name is one of the first things we learn about someone. Then as we come to know that person, their character traits become associated with that name. Characters are the reverse. First I imagine what the person is like and how he or she acts. Then when I try to assign a name, I can’t help but call to mind all the real people I’ve known with that name and how they are nothing like the character. I rule out that name because it doesn’t fit. And the next one. And the next one. Then I think of one I like and rule it out when I remember I already used it. (Except when I named someone John after I already had a Jon. Still not sure how I convinced myself that was okay.)

Age is also a factor. If I’m writing about a bunch of people in their 20s, I can give one or two of them an old-fashioned or unusual name. Not everyone names their kids from the top ten list. But if they all get names that were popular thirty years before they were born, something will feel off. I do have the social security baby name lists bookmarked.

The names need to be realistic but not too realistic. Truth is allowed more leeway than fiction. My Jr. High gym teacher’s name was Jim Schwartz. Really. I could never get away with putting that in a book. I have in real life known married couples named Chris and Chris and Daniel and Danielle. But when I named a couple Jack and Jill, more than one person criticized me for being too cutesy. Those are not terribly uncommon names. I didn’t think it was that far-fetched that they might find each other.

What about last names? There’s a balance between common and uncommon here, too. I can’t give them all names like Smith and Wilson. But they can’t all be Tecczyt or Dofsteadder either. I have read a phone book hunting first and last names. Many times. There are few things more boring than reading a phone book. Though scrolling ancestry records is close.

Now let’s talk about why there are so many characters to name this time. In my previous two series – Stories From Hartford and Coffee and Donuts – the main characters were unique to each book. The stories were tied together by the settings and a few familiar minor characters. The protagonists rarely appeared in each other’s stories and were usually unnamed when they did. This new series will be more traditional in the sense that minor characters in the first book will become main characters later in the series. That means I need to put more thought into those characters’ names than I might if they were only ever going to appear in one scene.

This is why I’m a little stuck. I need to know who is going to reappear. I need to make sure I like those names before I can edit the first book. I’m not sure I like the names. And this thing I’m referring to as the first book… I’m not trying to be secretive. I can’t call it by name because it doesn’t have one. I haven’t named the series either. There’s not even anything boring I can read for ideas.

Friday, September 21, 2018

How is writing like Four Square?

I know what you’re thinking. Not how is writing like Four Square but why is that even the topic? It’s the topic because, as usual, I ran out of ideas.

I asked my kids what I should put in a blog post this month. The one who is never out of ideas immediately said I could write about how writing a book is like Four Square. Her analogy was that the squares represent the stages. The dungeon is when you have an idea that you’re thinking about turning into a book. The jack is writing the rough draft. You’ve made it to queen when you are editing. King is finally holding a published book in your hand.

She even pointed out how sometimes it takes a long time to advance through the steps and while you can’t skip any, you can be knocked back to the beginning at any point. I was impressed by this insight. I also felt challenged by it. Given this thoroughly random topic, could I come up with something to write about? It sounds like an exercise for a creative writing class, and I could always use more exercise.

First, I made a list of what I know about Four Square. Then I tried really hard to make connections. It turns out that writing a book and playing Four Square have a lot in common, if you use your imagination.

1) Some people are better at it than others. Yeah, this is true of almost everything. But writing and Four Square are included. I get credit for finding this similarity.

2) It’s been around a long time. Four Square was a popular playground game when I was in school. My parents played it before me. Now my kids like to play. Writing has of course been around a whole lot longer. Still, neither is new.

3) You can play in different locations and with different balls. I’ve seen it played indoors and outdoors, with volleyballs, basketballs and most anything that will bounce. I think this could be described as the genres of Four Square. When the word genre is used, anything can sound like it relates to books.

4) There is a lot of arguing. In Four Square, the king gets to start each round by calling out the rules everyone has to follow. This is a little like what writers do. We invent characters and sometimes worlds and decide what happens next. In Four Square, after the king starts the round, everyone complains about the rules he or she has picked and whether or not they are being followed correctly. There are critics everywhere.

5) Story time. One of the craziest new rules I’ve seen is when the king yells, “Story time,” and all the kids gather in a circle to listen to the story. When the king says the secret word, the last kid to touch the ball is out. It may be short and completely nonsensical, but it is a story. And another check in the similarity column.

6) Sometimes I have no idea what’s happening. When the kids play Four Square at my house, the king calls out things like Pac-Man or Heartbeat or King’s Vacation and I have no idea what they’re talking about. Then the game starts, and the game I thought I knew looks like chaos. I’ve read books like that. I bet we all have.

7) It’s a long journey from the dungeon to the king square. Ask a kid who has played Four Square at recess every day for three weeks and never made it past jack if the king space is attainable. Now ask a struggling writer if the book will ever be finished. After all my brainstorming, my daughter’s initial observation is still the strongest argument that writing a book and playing Four Square are practically the same thing.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Life Imitating Art

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  My characters are not me.  I have definitely had main characters who said things I disagreed with and did things I would never do.  Recently, however, I experienced an uncanny parallel with one of my characters.  

In the book I’m currently writing, two people named Gabriel and Ruth are working together to lead a group at their church.  The group is supposed to discuss a different saint each week.  After Gabriel insists that it is Ruth’s turn to choose a saint, I wrote the following.

That was going to be difficult.  Whenever Ruth looked through the saints in these books, they all sounded interesting.  But only a little interesting.  She couldn’t seem to muster the desire to dig deeper on any of them.
Gabriel leaned back in his chair.  “We have a long time before we need to start on dinner.”
He’d obviously picked up on her reluctance to name a topic.  His patience was unfortunate.  She opened one of the books and began to read a random page.  Then she turned to another page.  It seemed that everyone she read about was born, prayed a lot, then martyred.  She was wondering where that wonderful variety was that someone had mentioned at their first meeting.  Plus, Ruth was very aware of Gabriel sitting nearby, watching and waiting for her to be inspired with an idea.  The pressure wasn’t helping.
She kept reading, skipping to more random pages.  Then she read one line that flooded her brain with too many thoughts to process.  “Oh, wow,” she said.

I had to stop there because when I wrote that part, I didn’t have the foggiest idea where I was going with it.  Oh, wow, what?  I didn’t know what Ruth’s idea was.  Ruth needed to have an idea.  That much I did know.  It’s not a secret that Gabriel is the love interest – that will be apparent in the blurb I haven’t written yet – and the hero needs desirable qualities, like an interest in the heroine’s ideas.  Therefore, the heroine needs ideas.  I was so stuck.

Like Ruth, I had some books on saints because I’d been doing research for this book.  I opened one and started reading.  If Ruth could get inspiration from something she read, maybe I could as well.  My concentration wasn’t great though.  I was skimming.  I was thinking of putting the whole project aside for a while.  Then I found something, one line, that sparked enough inspiration to finish the chapter.  I wrote out the rest of their conversation in no time.  While my own experiences do occasionally slip into my books - both intentionally and otherwise - this is the first time I remember writing something before it happened.