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.

Friday, July 20, 2018

I might as well be older than paper.

One of my kids recently asked to see a necklace that used to belong to my grandmother.  The necklace is tucked away in my chest of really old things.  The chest is something my dad made for me when I was a kid and is itself an old thing.  I opened it up to find the necklace.  To no one’s surprise, we got rather sidetracked by all the things that hadn’t seen the light of day in at least several years.  I showed off the letters and trophies I earned in high school and the rosary I received at my First Communion.  We flipped through a yearbook before we found that necklace.  I also discovered something that my kids found incredibly interesting.   It was the first book I ever wrote.

I wrote the book in 4th grade so let me clarify right off that the book itself is not all that interesting.  It was the story behind and around the book that fascinated the current 4th graders in my household.  I told them how I wrote the book as part of a writing club that met in our brand new computer lab.

Your school didn’t have a computer lab until you were in 4th grade?
It was the first computer lab EVER!?

Not quite.  While I was fortunate to attend a well-funded school which was likely one of the first in the area to have a dedicated computer lab, I highly doubt it was the first one ever.  I don’t like how old that makes me sound.  I explained how we had to line up the paper in the printer and clip it to the little feeders.  And how the story printed on a continuous sheet that had to be separated afterwards and the perforated edges removed.

I wish we still had that kind of paper.

I told them how we had no clip art, no scanner and no Paint.  That was why we had to print the pages and illustrate them by hand.  And there were only a few font choices.

Your drawings aren’t too bad.

Thanks.  Actually, I think my drawings aren’t too bad either.  Until I consider that I probably couldn’t do much better today.  I have spent countless hours working to improve my writing since that grade school book and approximately zero hours refining my art skills.  Fortunately, a computer can do for me now things it couldn’t back then.  I have been getting better at faking art skills. 

Is anyone wondering what that first book was about?  It was told from the point of view of an eraser through being purchased, handling lots of erasing during a school year, and then “retiring” with a brand new friend.  The two erasers are drawn on the last page with a heart between them.  My husband finds this amusing.

You were writing love stories from the very beginning.

Apparently so.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

What did she say?

If that title sounds familiar, thank you.  It means you may have read the post I did about two years ago with the same title.  I figure two years is long enough for a rerun.  If you missed that post or (which I’m sure is more likely) you simply don’t remember that far back, I gave a brainstorming example.  Sometimes when I’m stuck on a conversation between characters, I’ll start writing whatever pops into my head until something actually sounds good. 

In the book I’m currently working on, two characters named Gabriel and Ruth are reminiscing about a silly dance they used to do when they were kids.  Gabriel asks why they stopped doing the dance.  These are some of the responses I imagined from Ruth.

“It stopped being about mocking your parents pretty quickly.”
“Was it ever?” Gabriel asked.  “I mean, we were just having fun.”

“How many times did we do that when your parents weren’t even in the room?”
“Too many times to count.”

“I’m sure we looked even more ridiculous than your parents.”
“No, I think they looked sillier because they were old and we were fourteen.”

“That dance was always stupid.”
“Stupid fun is the best kind.”

“I still don’t know if they did that just to be mocked or if it was the way they really danced.”
“I don’t think it was either.  I think it was a spur of the moment thing.  They didn’t care if they got mocked by a couple of kids.” 

Which of these responses did I choose?  None of the above.  I only start listing a bunch of possible lines when I’m really stuck.  And sometimes I’m still stuck when I’ve exhausted the list.  But... this is only the first draft.  There is still hope for better inspiration when I’m editing the scene.  It’s early enough that I could even delete this troublesome conversation altogether.  I’m hoping for inspiration.