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.