Sunday, September 30, 2012

Maternity Leave :)

Just wanted to explain my recent (and forthcoming) absence--Baby E was born Tuesday night.  We'll be prioritizing all the new baby awesomeness and a little writing--and considering the next few weeks maternity leave.  Have fun without us!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Recipes for Writers: Turkish Lentil Soup

Writers have to balance their time effectively--we spend too much time in other worlds to waste on fussy recipes in our kitchens (unless we *want* to.  For funsies).  So, a quick, easy, freezable, delicious soup to get you through fall:

Why is this good for writers?  It involves minimal prep work--chop an onion and mince some garlic.  You can handle that in the ten minute break you need between writing scenes, right?  And then it just...simmers.  You can enjoy delicious smells wafting from your kitchen while you edit, right?

1 stick of butter (oh yeah, butter!)
1 large or 2 little onions
6 cloves garlic
3 cups lentils (standard size bag)
12 cups vegetable broth or stock (or--I use Better than Boullion soup base.  Much cheaper unless you've made your own veg stock)
6 oz can tomato paste (the little can)
Spices: 2 t each cumin, red pepper flakes, paprika, salt, black pepper
Herbs: 3 T each mint, oregano, parsley (I use extra mint!)

First, stop writing.  Find a problem to work out with your plot or your character development.  Muse it over while you chop the onions and mince the garlic.

Melt butter.  Add onion and cook until soft, then add garlic and cook a little longer.  Add the lentils and broth, tomato paste, and spices.  (NOTE: This will yield a moderately spicy soup.  If you like spicier, kick it up a notch; if you like milder flavor, downplay the red pepper and cumin.)

Bring to a boil and then reduce heat.  Simmer until you have soup instead of watery lentils.  (Believe me, you'll know.)

Go back to writing--see if you can write a sparkly new scene or revise that problem you were musing on earlier right out existence while the soup simmers.  You've got a couple hours--use it wisely.

Add herbs at the end of cooking

I serve this with homemade foccacia bread whenever I find time to bake.  It yields about four meals for me and my husband--we'll eat it twice and freeze the rest for later.  Which is another awesome resource for writers--when you can pull a meal out of the freezer, you get to spend a little longer with your characters.  Unlike packaged frozen meals, this is unprocessed and inexpensive!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Reads: The Great Gatsby

This week--one of those books that, really, has anyone *not* read given its proliferation in high school reading lists?


Genre: The American Classic

By: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Yes, he was named for the fella who wrote The Star Spangled Banner.

What's it about?  Privileged people and the tangled webs they weave.  And nearly crippling emotional issues and partying.  (I kept wanting a glass of Champagne while reading--I mean, all the characters got to have fancy cocktails!)

Why did I pick it? Two reasons--I haven't read it since high school and remembered enjoying it then, and with the film adaptation in the works, it came to mind.  That, and my husband was glued to the Bears/Packers game last night and I needed something to do.  This was handy.

Who will like it?  It's not pacey, it's not high-action, but it's still engrossing if you like digging into characters and a little bit of intrigue borne out of shadowy pasts.  When we talk "plot driven" vs "character driven" fiction, this is a staunch representative of "character driven."

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book? I learned something--the cover actually preceded the finished manuscript for this novel.  Fitzgerald's editor commissioned a contemporary artist to create the cover art  and it was done seven months before the book.  Does it capture the essence of the story?  Well, a gaudy carnival and the overwhelming presence of desperate sadness does kinda nail it.

What classics have you read or reread and enjoyed--maybe school assignments turned personal favorites?  Are there classics from the cannon of literature that you'd rather not give a second glance?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Show Your Work

If your math classes were anything like mine, there was one golden rule:  You had to show your work.  When ferreting out the value of x, you couldn't just slap the answer on the page--you had to show each painstaking step of stripping the equation down to the answer.  And sometimes this took line upon college-ruled line.

OK, so math homework could be a little anal.  What does this have to do with writing?

Quite a bit, I'm finding.  I keep reminding myself as I write and revise my current project that I need to show my work to my reader--that the reader doesn't know anything unless I tell them or lead them to discover it.

Writing a story is kind of like knowing the answer to a math problem already.  You know your characters, the plot (well, most of it, anyway...), the conflicts, the ending.  You know the details--why Susan is shy around strangers, why Bob is afraid of spiders, why no one can see the ghost in the attic except for Aunt Bessie.  Some of those details you keep deliberately hidden, of course--that's part of storytelling.  But most details aren't hidden surprises--they're meant to be shared.

Have you ever read a published book or a friend's draft (or, when you're being honest, your own) and been totally thrown by a character's reaction to something?  Or wondered why in the world a character is so prickly about certain topics?  Or just had no idea what to expect out of a character's reaction at any given juncture? When these kinds of reactions aren't meant to surprise us, they take us out of the story in a negative way.  And they're usually the result of the author not showing his or her work.  We need some piece of backstory or some hint at the character's quirks or personality that will explain this odd reaction.  Then, suddenly, what was a weird moment becomes a completely in-character and revealing moment, all because the author showed his or her work.

Even more common--have you ever read a book or draft with a character who's just...blah?  Nothing too exciting, nothing too interesting.  Just plain Jane nothing doing blah.  Now, ten to one the author didn't intend to write a beige character--in his or her head, the character is vibrant scarlet or deep purple or chipper, cheerful yellow.  When the author doesn't show his or her work, the reader doesn't see it.  You have to show the character to the reader--reveal the nuances of how he or she interacts, behaves, reacts, to paint a full and colorful picture.  Otherwise we're left with beige.  I admit, this is a big challenge for me--I see the characters in my mind, I know them, they're awesome.  But I have to find ways of expressing that awesomeness on the page--finding outlets for details and reactions to share what I know with the reader.

The same goes for plot.  If the reader isn't invited along to explore the mystery, or to see the impossibility of climbing the mountain, or to really understand just how much Betty loves Timmy, the story falls flat.  You have to show your work to build up a conflict--the reader can't be expected to assume it's there.  You have to spell things out sometimes--not because your reader is dumb, but because he doesn't live in your head with  you (we hope).

So--take a lesson from algebra and show your work.

Is this as challenging for you as it is for me?  What's your biggest hurdle in showing your work?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday Reads: Einstein's Dreams

Something entirely different this Friday:


Genre: I think the only moniker that could possibly work is literary fiction.

By: Alan Lightman

What's it about?  It's 1905, a young Einstein has just written 26 pages that will become his theory of relativity, and he's been thinking about time.  A lot.  The short vignettes that make up the book each explore a world in which time functions or is perceived differently.

Why did I pick it? I had to read this for a class in college, and it stuck with me, so I decided to reread it.

Who will like it?  If you like to ask "what if?" and appreciate a more literary style of prose (not dense--just a definite and deliberate use of language for beauty as well as function).  You'll probably have thought of some of these scenarios before, and some will be new, but all are approached in such an intimate, human-based, emotional manner that it feels like genuine exploration either way.  It's not a science book, despite the fact that it's written by a physicist (sidenote--if the world is fair it's required that he must have a conehead or a third eye to make up for the fact that he's a physicist and a talented writer).  It won't dive into theory or practicality at all, but sticks solely to what it would be like to look in on a world in which time works completely differently.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book? The cover is simple, spare, and nearly technical.  The book is simple, spare, and not at all technical.  There's also that nagging phrase "A Novel."  I'm not sure what you would call this, but a novel it is not.  A series of vignettes, perhaps?  And though we associate clocks with time, you see quickly in reading the book that even in our world and the way time functions here they're perhaps more symbolic than real...

What are you reading heading into the weekend?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Seamstress Writes: Starting a Project

Have pattern, will travel
You know I write.  My other odd obsession?  Sewing.  (There's a blog about that here.)  I'm starting a new sewing project, and I got to thinking about how the different types of inspiration for a new project can be pretty similar, whether written or stitched.

I get inspired by a lot of different "stages" of a project.  Sometimes what sets me off are the basics--the bones of the story or the garment.  For this gown it was all about the construction.  I knew exactly what I wanted the basic drape and shape of the gown to be.  This is kind of like when you get an idea that's all about storyline--you already know the plot before you sit down to write.  Honestly, this kind of project can be a lot easier to tackle, because the hard questions are answered--what do I do first?  What do I do after that?

Mostly this happened because I loved the fabric--
yummy deep blue silk
Other times, I'm inspired to start a story or a garment based on something a little more vague.  Maybe I just love a fabric and want to use it--somehow.  Maybe I have a single scene in mind--not even a scene that informs much of the plot--and want to build a world around it.  This can be harder, because you have to flesh out the idea, often by working with it for a while, before you can really take it anywhere.  This is when I drape my fabric over my dress form a million different ways and sketch and browse commercial patterns and steal ideas from designers.  It's also when I write scenes out of order that may or may not work and spend time talking to the characters in my head.
Favorite halter pattern
(1940s Butterick Retro)
And um, that same fabric.


Finally, there's the concept start--usually a start that begins with the answer to the question "What if?"  The only "big concept" writing project I've ever worked on started this way, and the gown I want to start did, too.  "What if" I turned my favorite backless halter dress pattern into a column dress with a back?  We'll see--I'm going to start playing with a muslin today.  And "what if" this were a writing project?  I'd start writing down ideas and getting a basic plot on paper.

You can't start truly constructing anything sewn until you have the basics--either a pattern or with the idea for your draping or drafting of your own pattern.  You can't start sewing by adding accessories.  Stories--well, stories can meander for a while without a set plan.  Eventually, however, they need to settle down and find a path to follow.

There's no right place, I think, to find inspiration for a project--no one reason to begin that makes sense or doesn't.  There are different challenges in each, of course, but isn't that half the fun?

What part of a new project do you usually springboard off of?