Tuesday, October 06, 2015

dubious choices

So last weekend a guy I know was organizing a "great race" kind of relay to raise money for the homeless. One of the challenge stations was sponsored by Schendler pest control, and contestants had to either eat bugs (mealworms, mostly) or answer questions about an essay describing Schendler's company history.

Out of 400 contestants, not one took the test.

Which just goes to show people would rather eat bugs than take a reading comprehension test.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

short stories: PX90 for your writer's brain

I'm a novelist by nature; I tell epic sagas. But at this distance, I can say I learnt the most about plot structure by writing short pieces, both stories and nonfiction essays. A story is, after all, a thematic argument, and if you don't know how to structure a convincing essay, neither will you be able to write a compelling story.

I remember distinctly the first two stories I wrote that I knew worked. It's significant to say that I wrote them after I'd taken a couple of pivotal classes in business writing and persuasive writing. Those classes impressed upon me that I was writing for an audience, and the audience couldn't see all the dream-logic explanations in my head—they needed concrete evidence.

I wrote those two short stories ("Galatea" and "The Bridgeport Job") about Quinn Taylor, a character I had already written three novels about. I did this deliberately; I knew the character and the world very well and so guessed I could be succinct with her. The plots themselves were conceived in my head whole, in thematic terms—I imagined the character's inner conflict and set out to resolve it. 

This isn't to say I knew exactly what would happen, but I had a set of possible options from the conflict I had established, and I picked and chose at every juncture. It was an eerie and awesome feeling of power, to steer the story from scene to scene instead of just wandering unsure of what would happen next. Those two stories were the first to get a thumbs-up from my writer's group—even though they had been "meh" about the Quinn Taylor novels. 

I never tried to sell those stories. They are decent, not great. But I treasure what I learned from them.

And so I say, even if you dislike short stories there is value in writing them. They are a golden opportunity to practice structure and theme and how they work together: 

1. Establish your theme (a/k/a motivating conflict, a/k/a thesis topic) at the beginning to intrigue the reader. This can be man-against-man, man-against the world, or man-against-himself.

2. Develop the theme/argument via examples (situational conflict) through the middle.

3. Resolve the theme by bringing it to a logical conclusion, and make it satisfying by addressing all possible counter-arguments (loose threads, plot holes).

Another big advantage to learning through short stories is economy. Short stories can seem much less intimidating to a beginning writer in terms of time commitment. Short stories can be read and evaluated at a gulp, which means you get more meaningful critiques from your writer's group. And fitting a story into 5000 words forces you to be efficient with characterization and description. Nothing will teach you to excise excess modifiers like a word count restriction. Every word has to count in a short story, so you learn to be precise.

So if your novel isn't getting the raves you hoped for, and you find yourself protesting, "It gets really good after the first few chapters!" take your writer's brain to the gym and push it through a few short stories. Low reps, heavy weight. You'll be amazed at the difference.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

caramel cake

Preheat oven to 350ºF
grease 8-inch sq. pan & line with parchment
bake 35-40 min

Sift together:
  • 2 c flour
  • 1 tsp bkg pdr
  • 3/4 tsp bkg soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
beat with mixer:
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1 c sugar
  • 2 lg eggs
  • 1 c buttermilk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
Add flour in thirds to liquid mixture until incorporated. Spread in pan and rap on counter to eliminate bubbles. Bake til golden & passes toothpick test.


1/2 c brown sugar
1 c cream
1 Tbs corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla

Cook brown sugar over med heat in heavy-bottomed saucepan. When brown & nutty-smelling, whisk in lukewarm cream, gradually at first, incorporating fully so sugar doesn't seize. When all cream whisked in, add corn syrup & vanilla. Pour over warm cake & let soak in.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

that feeling up the back of your neck

So I'm fairly sure I got cased out on the street today.

I was walking through downtown Lawrence, on my way to the coffee shop, about 9 am before all the shops were open. Bright daylight, chilly, very few pedestrians. I cross the street from south to north, at the corner, and two guys cross from the opposite corner, from east to west. As they cross, one of them goes straight, but the other makes a beeline for me, adjusting to my trajectory so he steps up on the curb maybe two feet behind me, and then lingers there for three or four strides.

I did a 180 turn, maintaining my stride, looked him in the eye. He, of course, almost steps on me and has to skip to the side, with a grunt as if I were being annoying. "Excuse me," I said, and kept walking. I figure he's going to either drop back or stride ahead, but he kept pace with me, at the building edge of the sidewalk. We're watching each other from the corners of our eyes. I have on combat boots, a utility jacket, backpack. He's about my age, six feet, lean, dressed like a clean homeless guy. I check the shop windows but can't see his partner. I keep my hands in my pockets and slow my pace.

My kung fu teacher says, if you don't want to fight, act like you do. And I know from experience that if you act unafraid, they'll wonder what you've got in your hands, inside that coat. In any case, I'm not about to run from a predator when there's nowhere to go, anyway.

I'm pretty sure I bluffed him out. Because after a minute, he said, in a very phony glib voice, "So you up here for school?"

And I said, in my usual cold flat response to idiocy, "I'm not out here for conversation, thanks."

He says nothing. He drops back. I cross the street at the light, keep going. Didn't see them again. My pulse accelerated a bit, but that was all.

I'm not entirely sure what happened there, but it was definitely shady. And I thought again, as I walked home a couple hours later, what a sheltered life I have led, that I have so seldom had to deal with nonsense like that. Wish I'd gotten a better look at his partner.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

fun with racial slurs

At my last writer's meeting somebody questioned my use of the racial slur "cracker," so I got curious and did some new digging; new resources crop up all the time. I knew 'cracker' was pre-Civil War but didn't know it was pre-Revolution:

cracker (n.2) Look up cracker at Dictionary.com
Southern U.S. derogatory term for "poor, white trash" (1766), probably an agent noun from crack (v.) in the sense "to boast" (as in not what it's cracked up to be). Compare Latin crepare "to rattle, crack, creak," with a secondary figurative sense of "boast of, prattle, make ado about."
I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode. [1766, G. Cochrane]
But DARE compares corn-cracker "poor white farmer" (1835, U.S. Midwest colloquial). Especially of Georgians by 1808, though often extended to residents of northern Florida. Another name in mid-19c. use wassand-hiller "poor white in Georgia or South Carolina."
Not very essentially different is the condition of a class of people living in the pine-barrens nearest the coast [of South Carolina], as described to me by a rice-planter. They seldom have any meat, he said, except they steal hogs, which belong to the planters, or their negroes, and their chief diet is rice and milk. "They are small, gaunt, and cadaverous, and their skin is just the color of the sand-hills they live on. They are quite incapable of applying themselves steadily to any labor, and their habits are very much like those of the old Indians." [Frederick Law Olmsted, "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States," 1856]

 (from www.etymonline.com a/k/a the most wonderful writer's resource ever)

Also, the less well-known and southern-specific "buckra"

buckra (n.) Look up buckra at Dictionary.com
disparaging term among U.S. blacks for "white person," especially a poor one, 1790, apparently from an African language; compare mbakara "master" in Efik, a language of the Ibibio people of southern Nigeria.

Once again, I'm struck by how American slang has about a billion derogatory words for "not-white," and specifically, "black", but not many that specifically disparage whiteness. Another example of how history, and language, are written by the victors.


Friday, October 31, 2014


Yeah, so, turns out I was right about 1) Curse rewrites and 2) Halloween gumming up the writing works. I shipped out the last costume yesterday afternoon, and this morning I got up and wrote a couple pages on a new chapter of the third Jacob Tracy book. Which is now titled Confounded Immortals, if you're playing along at home.

I'm pretty sure I know what's going to happen next. And that's such a good feeling.

Monday, October 13, 2014

applesauce muffnuts

Cronut, muffnut. Whatever.

I took a pumpkin donut recipe and from it made applesauce muffins. They are dense, moist, and fluffy, more like a coffeecake than a donut. Very good, not too sweet, kind of heavy, in a healthy-seeming way. If you use sweetened applesauce in the mix you will get a sweeter batter, but I like to keep the muffin itself only slightly sweet and then dust them in cinnamon-sugar, or ice them with powdered sugar icing.

  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tsp Penzey's Baking Spice (or, 1 tsp cinnamon; 1/2 tsp each nutmeg & allspice) 
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted but not hot
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • pinch salt, if necessary
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup applesauce (I pureed some granny smiths I had in the fridge & added a dash of lemon juice)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Stir together dry ingredients, sugar & spices.
In a separate bowl, stir together the wet ingredients, then add all at once to the flour. Stir together by hand until combined; batter will be slightly wet and not quite smooth. Pour into standard-size muffin tins (I got a neat 12 out of this recipe; the batter doesn't rise a lot so don't worry about over-filling the tins.) 
Bake 12-15 minutes or until they pass the chopstick insertion test. There is a LOT of moisture in these so they are still kind of squidgy in the middle even after they are done. Let cool in pan 5 minutes, then turn out onto cookie sheet if you intend to glaze/ice them. 
I brushed on some melted butter and dusted them with cinnamon-sugar.