Friday, November 29, 2013

Moreau's Daughter review in Locus Online

Locus Online has a tiny, noncommittal review of Moreau's Daughter:


"A sort of multiple mashup set in late Victorian London, where monsters roam the streets. Lily, as the title suggests, is one of the vivisectionist Moreau’s creations, now an assassin who comes to London when she learns of a serial killer who may have been vivisecting the city’s prostitutes. The man who calls himself Jack Nemo is obsessed with carrying out the Maker’s Law, within limits. “To hunt other Men was in strict violation of the Law. But the Maker had made clear that females were expendable.”

"The piece is mostly taking advantage of the opportunity to gather these characters on the same stage, as they could have been in history, if they were all historical characters rather than fictional. The author arranges one more meeting for Lily, in order to double down on the question: Just what makes a monster? The last line strikes me as ironic in its implied condescension to Lily."




Wednesday, November 20, 2013

little motivations

As many of you know, my first novel is under contract to be published next year. Right now I'm in the revision stage. I have been in the revision stage for an embarrassingly long time, largely due to split commitments of my time. I did some good solid work in August and then had to mostly stop writing to take care of Halloween sewing business.

November first, I promised myself. I'll dedicate all November to rewriting that last section.

But the problem with setting the story down is, the muscles get flabby. The pot goes off the boil. Your trail of breadcrumbs gets eaten or blows away and when you come back to the trail you find it all obscurred and you can't remember where you started from, much less where you're going.

I've spent the last three weeks trying to find my way back to the trail. I've been sitting down at the computer every day from 8 am til roughly noon, sometimes longer. I've been rereading the text that went before. I've written a new preamble. I've rewritten the same opening scene four times. I've gone to write in coffee shops. I've reread my favorite authors. I've watched my new guilty-pleasure TV shows. I've hunted for mood music.

Nothing seems to be working.

=============

Finally this week I turned to my last resort: my beta readers. I contacted a couple of friends and asked them to read through the revised text so far. It's kind of like cleaning the house when you know company is coming--you look at the familiar mess through someone else's eyes and you scurry accordingly. Also, when your beta readers are fans they tend to give you nice feedback about what you wrote and you realize that scene that gave you such a headache turned out all right after all.

Last night I tried something new, as well: I took the printed copy of the text being revised, sorted it into chapters and spread the chapters all over the practice-room floor. Then I took a stack of sticky notes, and for each chapter I jotted down a few words encapsulating what happened in each scene. Sixteen chapters in all.

I arranged the sticky notes on our big wall-mirror in the practice room, so I could stand up and move them around. I divided them into the three acts of the story, and I immediately noticed what I already knew intuitively: Act one was way too long and unfocused.

I took a second set of sticky notes, and for each chapter I wrote in red a synopsis of the subtext for each scene, and whether it needed to be moved or combined elsewhere.

===========

This week I bought the latest hardback by a popular author my husband and I both admire. It was an anniversary gift to the two of us.

Last night I sat in the living room and read the first two chapters.

"How is it?" the SP asked.

I looked at him for a long time before answering. I didn't want to say yet, for various reasons--I didn't want to color his opinion, or my own; we both have been wary of this author's recent work. Like all artists, he's getting older, and his style has changed.

"It's satisfying something in me," I said at last.

Later, in bed, the SP was reading over the first two chapters. "He's become an old man," he said ruefully. "He's become one of those artists who has to tell you what he knows about the world. He's not content to just observe and reflect, anymore."

I made a mental note of that. I rather think that what's gotten me in trouble with this rewrite is trying to do too much interpretation, not enough focusing on the narrative action. You can't force subtext, in my opinion. The best stories are inkblots anyway; trying to impose too much meaning on them renders them stiff and pedantic.

============

This morning I woke up with the feel of a heavy leather saddle in my hands, the dusty smell of horse on my skin. I realized it was evening, just after supper, and Trace was saddling up for the night watch. I realized I needed to back up the starting point of the story a bit, to do what I needed to do.

This is a starting point I hadn't contemplated before. I don't know what made me think of it. But it's the first clear, honest sensory image I've had from Trace for months. So I'm going with it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

revision

It's like straightening a wire.

Ret-conning all the old parts to match up with the new parts, while trying to make the character arc as smooth, believable, and heartfelt as possible. Sculpting all the scenes through a nice logical cause-and-effect progression, while aligning them with the larger motivations of the characters.

It's a difficult, infuriating process--a tiny counter-bend here that throws off everything at the far end. Small kinks that will never be completely straight. Constant stepping back to assure yourself that yes, it's still going in more or less a complete line.

Occasional self-assurance that most of your readers won't notice or mind that slight bend in the conduit.

Worrying about the ones that will.


Wednesday, November 06, 2013

backstory


Trace could not remember exactly the conversation during which he’d told his family about his curse. They’d been sitting in the parlor that evening—the elder Aloysius Tracy and his younger, golden-haired wife, Rachel. Jacob’s own wife, Dorie, pretty and plump with pregnancy, her auburn hair gleaming in the firelight. Probably she had been making something for the baby, whose arrival lacked only a month or so. Probably Rachel had been doing her own mending; no one’s hands were idle in the evenings. Probably Jacob had been whittling or mending tack or braiding rope, while Aloysius read aloud to them from one of his Catholic-interest newspapers or political tracts.
Jacob was thirty that year, and finally felt like a man. He’d been married nearly eleven months. He’d mended fences with his father, been welcomed home like the prodigal son, and thrown himself willingingly into the family farm. The years he’d spent on cattle ranches out west had taught him a few things about the new breeds and ways to improve stock, and Aloysius—perhaps as eager as his son to smooth over the years of ugliness between them—had been surprisingly receptive to Jacob’s ideas.
In the past year, since meeting Dorie, he had not seen a single spirit. Not one. And while some deep intuitive part of him attributed the miracle to her bright and intoxicating presence—she kept his head so turned around he hardly noticed where his feet were, much less any sinister goings-on—with his rational mind he chose to believe that he had finally grown up, put away childish things, overcome the weakness of mind and spirit that had needed to see death and horror all around him. He had stopped clutching weakness around himself like a shield, in an effort to stave off adult responsibility and keep wandering, unsettled, unreconciled to his father’s expectations.
The old man had been right, the thirty-year-old Jacob Tracy told himself. He’d spent too many years with his head in the clouds, pursuing ideas of some grand calling instead of settling to mundane reality. At least there was no more talk of his becoming a priest. Being married had put paid to that idea. And his brother Warrick was nineteen and already a corporal in the army. The irony of Aloysius’ pride in his younger son’s career was not lost on Jacob.
That was what had prompted the confession, now that he thought about it. Aloysius had been reading one of Warrick’s letters, and boasting about the younger brother’s achievements. Jacob had felt compelled to remind them that he, too, had been in the army and there was nothing distinguished about it, from an enlisted man’s point of view. That had goaded Aloysius to declare that fighting in support of such wickedness as slavery and rebellion was bound to bring on God’s judgment.
And then the familiar litany, delivered not in a scold but in a rational, triumphant tone, as if Aloysius Tracy was imparting some higher wisdom that his son was finally old enough to grasp: that defying one’s elders and falling in with unGodly companions were the first steps on the road to vice, intemperance, and insanity. It was only through God’s grace, Aloysius reminded them all, that Jacob had recovered from possession by the demons morphine and madness.
Dorothea had gasped at that, her eyes darting from her father-in-law’s face to her husband’s. Jacob felt frozen with shame and fury; he had told her little about the two years after he’d been wounded.
Rachel, alone of them, had the detachment and grace to turn the moment. “Now Al,” she said firmly—the only person Jacob had ever heard chide his father and get away with it. “You know Jacob was badly wounded. Of course he spent time in hospital. We should thank God he survived at all. And let us not discount his own character in maintaining his temperate ways. Why, even you know Father Gilham has a greater fondness for the bottle than he ought. It’s the curse of the Irish, my grandmother always said.”
“I was never mad,” Jacob said, looking his father in the eye. “I was out of my head with pain and fever, and yes, with the medicine they gave me. But I know what was what. I saw things out there on the battlefield, and for years after.”
Aloysius looked stony. Rachel seemed poised, as if to grab for a knick-knack in harm’s way. Dorie stared at Jacob, big-eyed. “What things?” she whispered.
And so he told them. About lying there on the battlefield and seeing the tear in the sky, and watching his fallen comrades march up through it. About the hospital, later, and noticing how some of the dead seemed to linger, confused, and how they began to congregate around his bed, asking him for directions, for explanations, to carry messages to loved ones. How he had argued with them and then raved at them in his pain and fever, until the nurses, not knowing what else to do, loaded him up with more dope until he could hardly move, and the ghosts mingled with his opiate dreams and began to seem like demons.
By the time he was healed enough to be moved he was already known as a derangement case (Dorie’s eyes were growing bigger and bigger) and the dope had its hooks in him. They’d transferred him, along with a few other ravers and cataleptics, to the Sanitarium at Richmond, where he eventually came to the attention of Dr. Hardinger.
But he knew it would do no good to tell Aloysius Tracy that his saving physician had been a devout Spiritualist, who had tried to persuade the younger Jacob that he’d been favored by God to bridge the worlds of the living and the dead. So the thirty-year-old Jacob caught his breath and summed up lamely, “He helped me stop seein them so often.”
“But you still see them?” Dorie insisted, her eyes darting around the room, as if reconsidering all the shadowy corners.
“No,” Jacob said, taking her hand. She was a delicate little thing—afraid of horses and lightning and even overly-large dogs. It was one of the things he loved about her—that she made him feel brave and strong. “Not for some time now. Certainly not since I met you. You think I’d let anything evil near you?”
“But you did see spirits,” Aloysius persisted, “after leaving the hospital. I saw it in your eyes, when you came here. The Devil’s curse was on you, and his imps pursuing you.”
Anger boiled up in Jacob. “Yeah, Da, they were. And you gave me no respite from them. You threw me out of here like Cain—“
“Jacob,” Rachel interrupted. “Let it be. Your father has long regretted his treatment of you. Don’t undo the goodwill you’ve built between you. And this quarrelling isn’t good for the baby.”
Jacob glanced at Dorie, who had a hand spread over her belly and was looking rather white. Instantly contrite, he helped her out of the chair and to their room, where he spent another hour or more assuring her there were no ghosts in the house, no demons coming to harm her or their baby.
But three weeks later they were all dead.

Monday, November 04, 2013

small sized chocolate cake recipe

This is really good, and it makes about half as much cake as most recipes. This fits nicely in a 9x9 square baking pan, and rises impressively; the batter was about 3/4 of an inch deep and swelled to over three inches in the middle.

I have made this cake before and omitted the frosting. It's also good eaten plain or with a dusting of powered sugar. Like most chocolate cakes, it is better the day after it's made, and best kept covered in the refrigerator.

A couple notes: this recipe contains olive oil and water instead of butter and milk. I think it makes the texture a bit lighter. Most people will probably prefer light-tasting olive oil, but I have also made it with EVOO and it was fine.

Note also that the leavening action comes from the combination of baking soda and vinegar. Don't omit either or the cake won't rise. I also recommend beating by hand; I think using a machine would overdo it.

Olive oil chocolate cake

1 1/2 c flour, lightly stirred or sifted before measuring.
1 c granulated sugar
1/4 c cocoa powder (plain old Hershey's)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 pinches cinnamon
1 c cold water
1/3 c light-tasting olive oil
1 tsp vinegar (white or apple cider)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg

Heat oven to 350ºF.

Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Make a well in the middle and pour in the liquids, the vanilla and the egg. Whisk until combined. Let sit for a couple of minutes. Whisk again until smooth. The batter will be thin and not taste very sweet.

Pour into 9x9 ungreased baking pan (I used Pyrex) and bake for 30-35 minutes until a chopstick comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

Ganache frosting

1/4 cup whipping (heavy) cream
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (or 1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips)
3 Tbs butter (if using unsalted, add a pinch of salt)
2 Tbs sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla

Put all ingredients into a saucepan and warm over medium-low heat until the chocolate is melty. Remove from heat and whisk until well combined. This is a basic soft ganache. As the mixture cools it will become stiffer, so whisk every five minutes. It will become less shiny and somewhat fluffy and more frosting-like. When the cake is well cooled and the frosting is spreadable, pile it on top of the cake, cover with foil and refrigerate. Better the next day, if you can wait that long.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

really, sort of, rather


This video flitted through my FB feed this morning.



And I found myself nodding along with the girl, although she is young enough that I hope, having recognized the pattern in herself, she will sculpt her own behavior rather than just talking about how unfair it all is.

I'm not sure how old I was when my mother was reading some of my writing (I must've been 20 or younger because midway through college I stopped letting her read any of my fiction) and she pointed out that I was using a lot of qualifiers in my narration: really, sort of, rather. Mom told me about the studies done on the ways men and women communicate and how women tend to "soften" their statements so they don't seem too aggressive, which leads to them being ignored or not taken seriously.

And because I have always had a macho streak, I decided then and there to purge those words from my writing and my speech.

I am fortunate enough to be married to a man who does not require me to give up myself, or yield ground to his personality, but he's a rare one. The three long-term relationships I was in before him all had elements of that paradigm, and they all ended when I quit yielding and they got resentful. And I didn't even grow up in a household that fostered this paradigm, but the boys did.

Paula Cole said in her song, "Nietzsche's Eyes":

Grandmother Mother
And now I see it in myself
I take on the water
Until the dam threatens to break
I became a little dull
My voice became too small

And back in 1996 I nodded to myself and said, Yup, not gonna do that anymore.

It doesn't solve all problems. My first marriage was supposed to be a partnership but it turns out men can also be manipulative and passive-aggressive. Women tend to be intimidated by me. Business relationships with men are still tricky, because bosses tend to feel threatened by me. I will probably never have a job that involves customer service, but that's not really a drawback.

I will probably never be an editor's favorite author. Luckily my agent seems to get me.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

on putting your characters through the wringer

My sister was helping me sew over the weekend and at one point she glances at me and says, "What are you smirking about?"

"Oh, just imagining the horrible things I'm going to do to my characters in the last third of the book."
And my sister just nodded, because she's used to this kind of thing from me.

My writing teachers used to remark on how dark my fiction was and I'd say, "Nobody's allowed to be happy in my stories." And they'd say, in some variation, "You'll grow out of that."

Which is supercilious hogwash, of course, and the root of why I discourage beginning writers from taking creative fiction writing courses. Because any creative writing teacher who pooh-poohs character angst is clearly lacking a grasp of what makes for good story, and unfortunately I have encountered this attitude in four of the four creative writing instructors I have had.

I got about 30% of the way into Trace Book Three this summer before I had to put it down for Book One revisions and the Halloween rush. The last batch of pages I took to my writer's group got a terrific compliment from my buddy Rob, who said, "I have no idea how this will end. I'm not even sure it will have a happy ending."


And that's a great thing, because it means A, he's genuinely involved with the characters and B, the challenges they face are not minor or superficial. I haven't set up a paper-tiger conflict, in other words. 

I was just reading this interview with Joss Whedon and he says, among other things: "We try to build the story organically and go, 'How hard can we make it on these people?' You go to movies to see people you love suffer—that’s why you go to the movies."

(And of course Joss Whedon is still one of my heroes. Even though Agents of SHIELD is kind of lame. Maybe because we haven't gotten to the suffering yet. It took six episodes of Dollhouse before he really dropped the boom on us.)

I learned a lot from Whedon; particularly Season Two of Buffy when Angel went evil and killed Jenny Calendar and we realized this show wasn't fucking around--Whedon could and would put his characters and his viewers through the wringer. Whedon has famously said, "I don't give the fans what they want, I give them what they need," and what fans need is a reason to keep tuning in.

So I'm putting the screws to Trace at least once in each book. In fact I'm thinking Book Three will be titled The Trials of Jacob Tracy. And I wish to God Halloween was over so I could get back to it. Ah well, back to the sewing machine.

Monday, August 26, 2013

all will love me... and despair

Had a great writer's meeting this weekend--good food and snarky humor are always a favorite combination--but as usual my peers' remarks gnaw into my writer's soul where they churn and ferment and cause acne. 

In particular I'm musing over Jan's assessment of my book as "dark."  On the one hand, Yay! I don't want it to be lightweight. I didn't really set out to write horror, but it is definitely dark fantasy, and I sure don't want to create a "paper tiger" conflict. On the other hand, people said Revenge of the Sith was "dark," and it still sucked. 

On the third hand--I guess we're up to feet now--I don't consider my story that dark. Maybe because I can see the big picture and I'm still optimistic. Or maybe because I'm comparing it to some of the utterly repugnant trash that passes for horror these days (Edward Lee, anyone?), and priding myself on still having a plot.

On the fourth appendage, I remember thinking that my Quinn Taylor books weren't that dark either... until I tried to reread "Mobius" earlier this year, and dear Ghod, that book is depressing. 

And on some fifth tentacle of supposition, my buddy Rob mentioned after this latest installment that he was pleased to say, he had no idea what was going to happen, nor even whether there would be a happy ending. And of course my husband remarked a few weeks ago that he was almost afraid to read any further, because he'd become emotionally attached to these characters and he was afraid I was going to do something bad to them!

Mine is an evil laugh.

Am I really doing a George R.R. Martin? That would be supremely ironic, since I quit reading after A Game of Thrones precisely because I couldn't take the grinding grimness. And further irony because I created Trace specifically to be an unambiguous good guy. It's just that I have to make Mereck equally bad in order to balance.

Don't worry, I don't have any "red wedding" scenes planned. There will be suffering, to be sure, but I really want these two to have a happy ending. After what I did to Quinn and Seth, I owe myself some writerly karma points.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

lavender cookies with rosewater icing

This one is circulating the net lately. I, of course, tweaked it a little. Most versions of this call for 2 tsp of baking powder, which I thought was way too much for a batch this small. Also I used my beloved Fiori di Sicilia for the icing instead of straight rosewater, since my bottle is a little old.

I've had lavender in chocolate bonbons before, but never in baked goods, so I was a little concerned about the lavender being overpowering here. It wasn't, even though my dried lavender buds were very fresh and smelled perfumey as I was processing them. When combined with the butter and sugar they create a lovely almost-sharp flavor, rather like basil, or the sweet overtones of black pepper.

This is some of the best cookie dough I have ever tasted. I love me some vanilla, but it is much richer and stronger than the delicate flavors featured here. My writers group ate the whole two dozen I took; luckily for me I kept a few in reserve at home. :-)

Bake at 375 for 11-13 minutes.


Lavender cookies with rosewater icing

1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
1 c sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp lavender buds, crushed
1 1/2 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
*some recipes call for grapefruit zest to be added to the batter, which I think would be delightful but I haven’t tried it yet.

Preheat oven to 375º F. 

Crush lavender buds with a morter and pestle, and/or process them with the sugar for a few seconds until finely crushed. Cream butter & sugar together; add eggs. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl; beat into the butter mixture in 3-4 stages. This makes a very soft dough, almost a batter. I chilled mine for a half-hour or so to make it more manageable, but it’s not necessary.

I strongly recommend using parchment paper to line your baking sheets for these. They are quite delicate.

Drop small spoonfuls (1-inch diameter) on the cookie sheet, spaced well apart. Bake 11-13 minutes or until barely browning around the edges. Remove promptly and let cool before drizzling on the icing.

Makes about 30 cookies. I think they would be just fine without icing, but YMMV.


Icing

1 cup powdered sugar, more or less
2-3 drops rose water
2-3 drops Fiori di Sicilia (optional)
milk

Combine sugar, flavorings, and just enough milk to get a consistency that will drizzle off the end of a fork. Drizzle away, preferably over the parchment paper on which the cookies were baked. Store tightly covered.

Tapas-style meatballs in sherry cream sauce


I've made meatballs before, but this flavor combination was inspired by some I had at Café Sevilla in San Diego. The paprika and the cumin make them seem exotic. 

All measurements are estimated; I tend to make meatballs by the seat of my pants, as it were. Don't omit the shallot in the sauce; it really makes a distinctive difference.

Meatballs:

1 lb ground beef
1 chub of seasoned pork breakfast sausage (I use R.B.Rice Mild or Medium)
1/4 onion, minced
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 pinches cumin
salt or seasoning salt to taste
1 egg
(optional) about 1/2 cup of texturizer; I used cold cooked rice, but rolled oats or bread crumbs may be used instead.

Mush everything together thoroughly in large bowl. Melt a couple tablespoons each of butter & olive oil in a heavy skillet. Drop small meatballs in the hot skillet and cook over medium heat; don’t let them get browned too much before they are cooked through. As the batches of meatballs are cooked, remove them to paper towels to drain.

Sauce:

1 Tbs butter
1 Tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small shallot, minced
optional: 1-2 tsp. beef bullion powder
1/3 c sherry
1/2 c half & half
1 Tbs tomato paste
thickener: 1 Tbs flour, or 2 tsp. cornstarch or arrowroot starch (I use arrowroot lately)

When all the meatballs are cooked, scrape up the browned bits and add the additional fats. Saute the garlic & shallot over med-low heat until well softened. Add the beef bullion power if using (Note: bullion powder can be very salty, and if you’re using cooking sherry, which already has salt, the result can be overpowering). Add the sherry, cream, and tomato paste and cook until bubbling. Dissolve the thickening starch in a bit of cool water and quickly stir into the sauce. As soon as it thickens, reduce heat to low, return meatballs to the pan and cover to simmer for 5 minutes.

These are fantastic with green peas.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Heroes of Cosplay: even worse than I expected.


I've put off watching it because I hate this kind of show, and because I'm dreading how I'll be portrayed and frankly, how the contestants will be portrayed. Although the producers that I worked with were very professional and doing the best they could, the story editors are there to create drama. And I hate drama. I may write it, but in my life I like things peaceful. 

But I watched it, finally. It's been covered and reviewed, elsewhere, so I won't do that. I'll only add my personal reactions:

1. I know they only did five conventions for six episodes, and I can tell from the montage shots. I've already seen myself twice.

2. I don't believe the contestants' lines are scripted, but I do think these interviewees either planned ahead what they were going to say, or had to repeat their speeches so many times that it comes off sounding fake.

3. I knew Yaya Han made a business out of her cosplay, but I had no idea it paid her mortgage. I have to really wonder, now, why they asked her & Riki & Monika to be one of the group competitors when Yaya was a judge at the other events--and especially after she made a statement about not competing anymore. That really does seem--I don't know if unfair is the right word, but certainly suspicious.

4. I'm really glad I wasn't asked to be one of the competitors on this show. For all their talk about it being fun, only the dude, Jesse, seems to be having a good time. I wonder how much advance notice they had about being invited to the show. (Judging by the amount of advance notice *I* had, not much!). These girls are not doing anything to buck the stereotypes of cosplayers being insecure, needy, and backstabbing.

5. Of course, I can stand back and be detatched from it because it's not my chosen vocation. I wonder if they'll include that bit of my interview. I shall be sorely disappointed if they cut the part where I mention my book deal.

6. I don't think any of these people is really as bitchy or vapid or stupid as the editors make them appear. The producers were giving us, the judges, questions to put the contestants on the spot, which I thought was supremely tacky.

7. I'm relieved to know that even Yaya is throwing things together at the last minute. But she's got a helluva lot of nerve making snide remarks about Victoria not being prepared. The little forced huggy bits on the con floor are annoying. I am oh-so-glad they didn't make me do that.

8. I guess it's nice that they're trying to voice the message that "personifying the character is more important than having the perfect body type" but Becky just comes off sounding really insecure.

9. One thing you don't get from watching this is how the judges have to make decisions based on the category divisions. So sometimes you have, say, seven great costumes in one category, and maybe three mediocre ones in another category, but because of the way it breaks down, you are forced to choose from among the mediocre costumes and some better work goes unacknowledged. But it's that way in every kind of competition. As a martial artist, when I've gone to major events, I know ahead of time that there are certain categories that will be more difficult to win, because of the number of competitors and the judges' biases. If you know the game ahead of time, you can sometimes stack the deck. I don't think any of the competitors here had that advantage.