Monday, September 18, 2023

Time Traveling

Some people call it insta-love.  It’s a criticism of books and movies where the audience is expected to believe the main characters are truly in love way too soon, within days if not hours of meeting the beloved.

As a romance fan, I’ve rolled my eyes at many examples of this.  I’ve read that a heroine knew she was madly in love because of a light-headed feeling.  I wanted someone in the book to ask her if she was sure she hadn’t just stood up too fast.  That can happen.  I’ve been told characters were in love when they’d barely had a conversation because of all the things their eyes had communicated.  That is called infatuation.  A gaze across a room doesn’t say if he’ll mock her religious beliefs or if she’ll want him to quit his job to raise donkeys in the desert.

And I can’t say how many times I’ve watched that movie where a young woman has to return home to the family [ranch, B&B, vineyard, farm, flower shop, etc.] for some big event.  (I can’t say partly because I’ve lost count and partly because it’s an embarrassing admission.)  She meets a guy who is either the competition or trying to shut down the business.  No matter what contrived conflicts or ridiculous misunderstandings arise in the two or three days before the event, she is madly in love with him at the end because, well, because she said so. 

Let’s not analyze that any further.  I’m not trying to sharpen my knives here.  These examples are brought up in fun to illustrate something I try to avoid in my work.  Yes, my books are fluffy and light-hearted.  But they still need to hold to the truth that real love takes time to develop.  Superficial relationships aren’t funny.  You need to know someone before you know what makes him laugh and before you know how to push her buttons.

There are two ways to avoid insta-love.  The first is to establish that the main characters knew each other before the story started.  Maybe they’ve been friends for a while, maybe they have shared history.  When there is already some sort of relationship, I can use a short timeline to create a romantic shift.  Pop quiz: Name the books in which I’ve used this strategy.

The other, and in my opinion more difficult, option is to stretch out the timeline.  I can’t do that by simply including a sentence that begins with “six months later.”  Readers will want to know what happened in those six months.  I will want to know what happened in those six months.  The rest of the book is going to be weird when I make references readers don’t understand or have characters who don’t seem to have said or done anything in all that time.

Another terrible way to jump ahead is to pick random days to illustrate.  Here’s what happened on this day, and two weeks later there was this other event.  Then I’ll show you what happened on a day with snow so you’ll know it’s later in the year.  My couple will be getting along great and readers will be happy to see them holding hands.  No one will care that we missed the first time he reached for her or how they resolved that issue that caused an argument on the warmer day.  Right?

Even worse would be a complete summary of events.  I could simply inform readers that she agreed to spend a lot of time with him, that he said some sweet words at some point, and now it’s time to believe they’re headed for happily ever after.  It doesn’t work to say it isn’t insta-love.

So if those are some of the wrong ways to move the timeline ahead, what is a right way?  It’s all of the above.  I mix up the wrong ways – a bit of skipping, a bit of summarizing, and even a bit of randomness – and hopefully end up with a plot that gives the characters enough time to start to love each other without missing any of the highlights.  This is why it’s difficult.  I have to squeeze all these lemon ideas into sweet lemonade.  If I squeeze too hard, I’ll end up with seeds and pulp in the story.  Or I’ll just ruin the metaphor.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Do I need to like everything I write?

This is a question I’ve been pondering lately.  Notice that it is a yes or no question.  I cannot answer it without first breaking it down and clarifying exactly what I mean and basically making it more complicated.  Otherwise, this would be a very short post.

As a whole, I need to like every book I write.  They can’t all be my favorite; I do like some more than others.  But I won’t publish something I don’t like.  That’s not really what I mean by this question at all.

It isn’t about the opinions of the characters either.  I want my main characters to be different and variety insists they can’t all sound just like me.  Sometimes they deliberately express opinions I don’t share.  Sometimes they do things I can’t picture myself ever doing.  I have to imagine the character with different influences and experiences, even in little things.  In the book I’m currently writing, for just one example, the heroine spots a guy carrying a floor tom.  (No, I’m not going to explain why right now.)  She does not have a son who plays the drums, nor have I imagined a particularly musical background.  It seemed more appropriate for her to describe the drum than to throw out the name.

And now we’re finally coming to what sparked the title question.  In the same book, there is a pizza restaurant.  I do not like the name I’ve given to this restaurant.  I can’t say what this name is because I haven’t decided if I’m going to change it.  If I think of an awesome name tomorrow, no one needs to know what the bad name was.  And if someone eventually sees that awesome name in the book and thinks it’s really not that awesome, no one needs to know I changed it.  For now, let’s imagine I called the pizza place something super creative like Pizza Place.

Whenever a character refers to Pizza Place, I have something like a mental spasm where I’m trying not to be terribly annoyed with a character I otherwise like for calling his restaurant something ridiculous.  I didn’t think of this name, he did.  Except that we all know I’m really behind his thoughts.  I want to blame him for the dumb name.  It was his bad idea.  But I gave him that idea. 

There are only two possibilities.  I’m either entertaining myself with a paradox that isn’t, or I hurt my brain a little when it sputtered out that awful name.  Writing is fun.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Break Time is Over

At times, there is so much going on around me that it’s difficult to concentrate on whatever book I’m currently writing.  I have found that it’s better to step away than fight for focus.  If a break is only a few days, it’s easy to get back into my story.  If it stretches into several weeks – as it did recently – I need to spend some time looking at notes and reading what I’ve written to re-immerse myself.  I’m surprised at the variety of reactions.

I am not surprised that I like some parts of my work better than others.  This is a rough draft after all.  I find sections that make me think I might have talent, and then I find other sections that make me wonder if I even know what talent is.

What surprises me is how well I do or do not remember the pages.  Some words trigger a memory of exactly how long I stared at them before I could think of a good next line.  Some make me remember what I almost wrote instead.  I usually find anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages that I remember writing so clearly that I know where I was, why I was there and the question someone interrupted me to ask.  The associations are so embedded in the text I can picture myself writing those words. 

I also find equally long sections that I do not remember writing.  The words aren’t even familiar.  I could believe someone else borrowed the notebook and continued my story without me if I didn’t recognize the handwriting.  It’s weird because I’m not that old.

One thing that is never a surprise is the length of what I’ve written.  I may have forgotten some details, and I may need to check which plot points I’ve hit, but I always remember how much work I still need to do on that book.  Now I need to get back to it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Still Wrong

Last May I wrote about some of the ways I’m doing this author blog thing wrong. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the whole author thing wrong.  Why?  Because I’d like to read more books like mine, and I rarely find any.  When you spend years and years painting mountains and everyone around you is painting other things, you have to wonder if mountains are wrong.  Here are a few reasons I think I might be painting mountains.

My Christian fiction is Catholic.  I’ve read enough to know that Christian fiction should be completely nondenominational (unless it’s Amish).  Characters discuss the faith in broad strokes (Go Jesus!) without delving into specific doctrines.  But they do this with the vocabulary and general understanding that all Christians are Protestants.  I’m not trying to break rules or break into apologetics when my characters mention Mass or Confession.  I have to write what I know.  That is also a rule.

My Catholic characters act Catholic.  It’s possible I’ve had terrible luck.  It seems that every time I manage to find a Catholic story, I’m disappointed by dubious content.  One book that recently sounded promising was taken off my list by a review that praised it for having a main character who “says bad words! Just like a real person.”  The only reason I seek out Christian/Catholic books is to avoid the things I can find in almost every other book.  I think people who live by a moral code are more fun to be around, in both real and made-up worlds.

My light entertainment does not grapple with anything.  Too often in Christian fiction, characters who are truly living their faith still have heavy regrets in their past.  Readers are forced to watch as they deal with consequences or painful memories.  We might even read about someone struggling to escape abuse.  Serious issues do not make good entertainment.  I prefer not to torture my characters.

My definition of “inspirational” includes more than tragedy.  Christian fiction likes to explore the ways God comforts and aids us through the most trying times.  I get that, and I respect it.  But tear-jerkers are not my cup of tea.  I dipped my toes into that water with They See a Family.  I think that book did stretch my writing muscles.  But it still makes me feel as though I need to apologize to anyone it might have made cry.  I have no plans to read or write anything else that includes the words tragedy or heartbreak in the blurb.  My soul is inspired by joy.

My fluffy romances do not illuminate the human condition or other such nonsense.  I am turned off by fiction that promises to be meaningful and/or make people think really hard.  Spiritual growth is awesome.  Rest is awesome.  I believe they are best achieved in separate spheres.  I hope that reading my books will make people smile, maybe even laugh.  I have no aspirations to change anyone’s life with my stories. 

My characters aren’t stupid.  Yes, I need to admit quite a bit of bias and subjectivity here.  When I do find light stories, I quickly lose patience with authors who try to draw comedy from people acting unbelievably dense.  Oh, no!  My credit card is rejected because I keep buying stuff I don’t need.  Oh, no!  I’m trying to do something without admitting I have no idea how to do it.  Oh, no!  I’m hiking muddy terrain in spikey heels so I’m about to fall on my face.  Oh, no! This misunderstanding is going on forever because I keep talking over you when you try to explain.  Oh, no! I had to close the book that wasn’t funny.

My fiction is not nonfiction.  Because I feel I’m being particularly hard on other Catholic authors, I want to point out without naming names that there are several whose works I love.  They even include powerful messages.  But they all write nonfiction, which is where life-changing words belong.  Sometimes I wish those authors would pen some fiction for when I’m in the mood for simple entertainment.  I cannot ask that without asking why I don’t write nonfiction.  Please keep doing what you love.

I’ll keep doing what I love, too, even if it’s wrong.  Because in the end, I’m the only one who has to look at the mountains I’m painting.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Naming Characters and Not Naming Characters

I try not to inhale too deeply when I read the musty old phone book.  I try not to throw anything when I get through several classes before I realize the yearbook I’m skimming is another copy of the one I skimmed yesterday.  Mostly, I try to keep my sense of humor when naming characters is still the hardest part of every new project.  Has anyone noticed how that shows up in my books?  Every now and then I like to avoid giving some insignificant character a name.  Here are a few examples.

From Into the Fire

“Hey, man, hear you’re on your way out.”  The welcome voice of a coworker arriving on the scene.

“Yeah,” Joseph said.  “I’m about to grab my last schedule.”

“Hope Mr. D. is in,” the other guy said as he opened the door.

Joseph nodded.  He could still hope for that even if Joseph already knew it wasn’t true.  He sensed the other guy’s steps slow as his hopes were dashed.

“Hello, boys.”  Jillian stood from her desk and walked around to sit on the front of it.  “Here for your schedules?”

“Of course,” other guy said.

Joseph would be trying harder to remember his name if it wasn’t likely the last time he’d ever see him.

I might have tried harder to give that other guy a name if it wasn’t also the only time he shows up in the book.  Notice that the boss didn’t get a full last name either.

From Collecting Zebras

   Jon pulled out a pan and said, “Who told you my last name?”
    “Oh, I just met one of my neighbors. He said if I didn’t know someone’s last name I should guess Thorpe because there are a million of them in Hartford.”
    “A slight exaggeration, but there are a lot of us. My dad’s mom and dad had eleven kids and nine of them were boys so they kept the name and every one of them has at least two kids, a lot of whom also have kids.”
    “I know there’s a kindergarten teacher named Thorpe. Her first name is…”
    Jon nodded before I could remember it. “She’s my cousin,” he said.

He very conveniently cut her off before I had to give that character a name.  That’s the real reason Angel couldn’t remember it.

From The Art of Communication 

    Katie tried to figure out how to politely tell her sister she was making a big deal out of nothing. “Why are we even talking about Christmas ornaments in the summer? You know it’s barely July, right?”
    “Well, I…” She let out a short laugh, heading off her own tantrum before it started. She might have a quick temper, but she wasn’t completely unreasonable. “I saw an ad for some Christmas in July sale happening next week, and it got me thinking about how this will be my first Christmas as a mom and how the little one will be too little to remember it or even really do anything special and I thought about how we’d at least have a special ornament to… I thought if I worked on it now, I could present it to Mom as a way of announcing the name and everything.”
    “That would be nice,” Katie said.

What’s nice is that Katie’s sister is keeping her baby’s name a secret so I don’t have to think of one.  Later, it’s mentioned that the baby got their mom’s first name as a middle name.  The mom is never introduced.  I still didn’t actually give the baby a name.

From The Art of Introductions

“Have you had any luck with the online dating thing lately?” Ryan asked. He was looking at Cameron.

 Cameron kept his eyes on the cards he was dealing. “No comment.”

“Sounds like a no,” Logan said.

Trevor smiled. “No luck is better than bad luck.”

“For Cameron maybe,” Ryan said, “but I kind of enjoy hearing about the bad luck.”

“Me, too,” Logan said. “What was the name of the one who turned out to be nearly as old as your mom?”

“Still not commenting.” Cameron kept his eyes on the cards. His tone got a bit of an edge to it.

Cameron isn’t commenting on the name because I’m not.  I try to keep the edge out of my voice when talking about naming my characters by having a little fun where I can.  At least in my fantasy series, I am allowed to make up names.  And I can use that as an elegant segue into mentioning that the birthday of Birthdays in Wisherton will be May 27th.  I recommend my new book over any of the name lists I’ve been reading.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

It's Almost Easter!

I’m going off brand this month because I’m currently working on a different type of writing - clues for Easter egg hunts.  I love Easter egg hunts.  Now.  Some of the first hunts I hosted turned competitive and not entirely full of joy.  Over the last fifteen years or so I have put a lot of time and effort into making the hunts at my house something special.  This is not advice though.  It’s just a few things I’ve learned.  If anyone happens to benefit, yay!

1) Color-coded hunts work well for younger kids.  Each kid is looking for and only allowed to pick up a certain color of egg. 

2) Hunts can be divided with some kids looking inside and some searching outside.  (Or different rooms in the house if it’s rainy.)  This way you can use more difficult places for bigger kids without them also snatching up the easy ones before the little ones can get them.

3) If you hide eggs indoors, think carefully about where you hide them and what directions you give for finding them.  If people start dumping out drawers and emptying cabinets that are nowhere near the hiding places, someone might freak out.

4) You don’t actually have to put anything inside the eggs.  You can simply have the kids trade the eggs they found for a basket or bag of goodies.  Or have the last egg in a scavenger hunt be some sort of ticket for the treats.

5) Individual scavenger hunts are awesome for kids old enough to read.  It’s still best to keep these color-coded for two reasons.  One, kids won’t accidentally find someone else’s egg.  Two, you don’t have to think of as many hiding places.  There can be three eggs in the freezer if they are all different colors.

6) Find someone to play-test your clues.  It’s hard to judge the difficulty of something when you already know the answer.  If a ten-year-old needs two adults to help him figure out one of your clues, he’ll be well within his rights to give you a hard time about it.

7) An alternative to having kids rummaging through your house is to have the eggs “hiding” in plain sight.  Assign each egg a number, and each clue will point to one of those numbers.  If there are a hundred eggs around the house, it will still take some hunting to find the right one.  (I write the number on a piece of masking tape with a bit of ribbon, then clip the egg to the ribbon so I can stick them all over the walls.  You can also write the numbers on the eggs and just scatter them.)

8) Write down the answers to all of your clues.  It is a hassle to re-solve each clue as you hide them to know which number or hiding place you need next.

9) Kids will enjoy the hunts more if you use a variety of clues.  Don’t make them all lame riddles.  Only use one lame riddle per child.

10) Inventing new types of clues is fun.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s switch to Roman numerals for a few examples.  (Roman numerals are fun, too.)  i. A maze with letters printed throughout.  Solving the maze will spell out a clue.  Scramble the letters for an extra challenge.  ii. Lame riddles.  iii. A mini crossword puzzle with answers like upstairs, bathroom, second and drawer.  iv. Codes.  You can print something simple with a cute Easter clipart to represent each letter of the alphabet.  For a super challenge, have a number represent each letter, only give the kid a few letters to get started and make him run all over the house to figure out which letters they are.  Ex. The letter A is represented by the last two digits on the serial number inside the microwave.  v. Write out the clue with a few extra letters repeated in the middle of the words and have the kid cross off those letters to read it.  vi.  If the kids are hunting numbers, just give a math problem.  It’s not homework if it’s part of something fun.  vii.  Write a ridiculously bad nonsense poem where the first letter of each line spells a clue if you read straight down.  viii.  Kids love silly active clues.  Write a list of instructions that involve hopping from one room to another, spinning around and making funny noises before ending at the hiding place.  The kids know the last step will lead them straight to the egg, but I have never seen a kid skip ahead.  I guess my writing is good even off brand.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Cover Story

I’m writing about dirt today.  This is going to be awesome.  The new Wisherton book doesn’t have a release date yet, but I’m guessing May or June.  That’s close enough that the book needs a cover.  Oh, joy of joys.

Please don’t mistake all this sarcasm for negativity.  Making a book cover is fun, and that’s not sarcasm.  I get to take a break from writing to stretch a different creative muscle.  My visual design muscle is a weakling though.  It lifts in ounces not pounds, and it gets strained easily.

On the way to creating each new cover, I typically ruin several with an ugly font or a weird effect or an accidental deletion or by merging layers I meant to blend.  I think every time I make a new cover, I also come up with a new way to ruin one.  That’s another way to say I come up with a new way to laugh at myself, and that’s why it’s fun.

Let’s talk about my new cover.  It’s still a work in progress.  Because this is a series, I need to keep it consistent with the previous books.  What is the theme of the Wisherton covers so far?  I gave you a hint in the first sentence.  The theme is dirt.  Look at the first four books on your bookshelf.  (Or you can peek at the bottom of the page.)  The theme is clearly dirt.  I’m laughing at myself already.

Now I feel compelled to explain how I arrived at this brilliant theme.  I don’t use stock photos because I want my covers to be original.  I don’t use original drawings because I can’t draw.  Seriously, even my stick figures are sad.  The Wisherton books are set in a fantasy world so I wanted to avoid a picture of anything that looked too much like the ordinary, everyday, non-fantasy world. Most of the events happen outdoors, which is where I went in search of a cover photo.

I went to my backyard and started with a maple tree.  Don’t ask me to be more specific than maple, my nature skills are as bad as my drawing skills.  But I knew it was a maple and that anyone else would recognize that much.  There were a few other nature things I considered.  They all seemed equally non-fantasy-ish.  Then it occurred to me that no matter what plants grew in this strange world, they’d probably still need dirt.  In trying to avoid anything overly ordinary, I ended up with a picture of the most ordinary thing of all.  And now you know what to think of my logic skills.

To be fair, dirt is only the background of each cover.  There is something more interesting in each one.  For this new cover, I thought I could use pretty flowers, modified in some way to appear more foreign.  Before I could do the hard part of changing the flowers, I needed to do the “easy” part of figuring out where in the picture they looked nicest.  But they didn’t look nice anywhere.  I didn’t like them draped down one side.  I didn’t like them on the other side.  I didn’t like them across the top.  I sort of liked them at a diagonal, except that my foot ruined the picture.  I’ve never accidentally gotten my own foot in a cover photo before so I guess that was the new way to ruin it.

And all that was before one of my early readers said the brief mention of flowers in the story isn’t enough to make it an appropriate cover image anyway.  The alternative suggestion is to show a paw of the imaginary baby animal from the story.  I don’t know if I need to change my flower idea.  I also don’t know if getting a picture of an animal that doesn’t exist would be any more difficult than getting those flowers to do something interesting.  I only know this work is going to be in progress for some time.  But I’m still laughing.

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Q. Why are you writing about A Tale of Two Cities?
A. I’m not.

Q. Hmm.  What’s with the title reference?

A. It struck me as an apt description for the current state of both my projects.


Q. That brings up several questions, but first, why is this in interview form?

A. I started to write a post the “normal” way and found myself beginning a sentence with “If someone asked me…” Then of course someone had to ask me the question.


Q. That makes total sense.  How do your projects relate to the best and worst times?

A. It’s the best of times because with these two books, I’m at my first and second favorite steps in the writing process.


Q. Wait.  What is your favorite step in writing a book?

A. It’s writing the last sentence of the first draft.  There’s an amazing sense of accomplishment when those words hit the paper.  It’s the good kind of pride, the feeling that I just did something hard.  I committed to months of work and got it done.


Q. Are you talking about the Wisherton book you mentioned last month?

A. Yes.  I’m typing up the rough draft right now.  Well, not right this minute because I’m working on this interview.  But essentially right now.


Q. You have another project at your second favorite step?

A. Yes.


Q. And that is?

A. The step or the project?


Q. Both.

A. I think I’ve landed on an idea for my next romance book.  The very beginning is a fun step in the process.  I’m spending time in fantasy land and letting myself get excited about new stories and new characters, just in case it might be a series.


Q. That all sounds fun.  Why is it also the worst of times?

A. I admit that’s a melodramatic take.  I know from experience that my two favorite parts are also some of the shortest parts.  I only get to enjoy that finished draft for as many days as it takes me to type it.  Then I have to start looking for ways to improve it, sometimes even admitting that part of my hard work isn’t very good.  There will be changes and additions or deletions.  Basically, my sense of accomplishment is bashed around by reminders that I’ve only actually completed one step.


Q. I guess you don’t get to stay in fantasy land either?

A. I can only scribble thoughts and highlights for so long before I have to commit to the difficult task of writing it all into a coherent story.  That puts a damper on some of the fun.  And before I can even do that, I have to name everyone.


Q. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.  By the way, what was the question someone needed to ask?

A. Don’t worry.  We covered it.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Back to Wisherton

Isn’t Back to Wisherton the title of a book I wrote a few years ago? Yes. Wasn’t it also the title of a previous blog post? No. Isn’t the whole Wisherton series a bit, I don’t know, off-brand for me? Yes and no.

Now let me elaborate on these questions. Back to Wisherton is in fact the second book in what is currently a four-book series. I named a post Back to Names around the time it released because I was excited to share that new book. I named this post because I’m excited to announce that I am going back to the Wisherton series to add a 5th book.

The title of book 5 will be Birthdays and Wisherton. Is anyone surprised by the format, a word that starts with B followed by Wisherton? I mean, anyone other than me. I never intended for that to be a thing. The first two books are set a little earlier than the rest. They go together to launch the series, and it seemed appropriate to give them similar titles. I had something completely different in mind for the 3rd book. And then I got yelled at.

Some people around me, including my children… okay, mostly my children, were outraged that I planned to deviate from the pattern I had established with the first two books. Nobody cared that I wasn’t trying to establish a pattern. I didn’t know I was locking myself into every book I write about these characters forever and ever having to start with the letter B. Fortunately, I warmed up to the idea of a starting point for my titles, though I would have put up a bigger fight if I had to work with Q.

As to the last question of whether I’ve wandered off track with this series, I think I can say no, not totally off track. Most of my books are romantic comedies and this is children’s fantasy. It is a different genre. But I’m still writing all the essentials. Wisherton is a fantasy world where Christianity does not exist. They do believe in a creator and that the sometimes supernatural gifts they’re given are for helping each other. There is still faith.

Love doesn’t always mean romantic love. I enjoy illustrating the strong bonds of family and friendship. Of course the people we most love are also the ones most capable of annoying us. That is an awesome source of humor for an author. I am inspired daily. Not that I’m suggesting anything in my books is directly from my own life. Any similarities are purely coincidental. Probably.