Friday, December 28, 2012

4 structural problems to consider, before worrying about petty grammatical and style issues

Once again one of those true-but-trite articles about writing style has flitted across my radar. Beginning and mid-level writers like to pass around articles like this, because the advice in them is concrete and easy to understand. Just pluck out all those nasty adverbs and to be verbs and you're a writer!

It's perfectly fine advice as it goes, but style isn't what sells a book.* Clean style might keep the agent or editor reading a little longer, but the gatekeepers of publishing are FAR more likely to take on a book with a strong story and 'meh' writing than the other way around.** How else do you explain James Patterson and Kathy Reichs? Their writing mechanics are functional at best, embarrassing much of the time. But they know how to put a plot together, and their copyeditors know how to clean up clunky sentences.

Examining and evaluating story structure is much more difficult to do. Here are four major structural problems I tend to see in unpublished manuscripts.

1. Motivation, lack of. What does your character want? Backstory is not motivation. Motivation is the reason you are telling this story through this character's POV. Something has happened to knock his world askew and he won't rest until he's resolved the problem. This could be a new problem or something that's been going on a long time and he just can't take it anymore. Even if your hero is going about his daily life for the first three chapters, unaware of the evil about to descend on him from above, we still need to see his daily stresses and wants and needs. Those stresses and wants and needs should not vaporize, either, once the Big Bad comes on the scene. The needs and wants of his daily life should become MORE important to him once his world is knocked askew; those are the things that give him depth and roundness and a reason to fight.

2. Cause and consequence, lack of. Your character's every action should have a motivation. And every action that he takes should have reasonable and believable consequences. Optimally, his actions will create new long-term complications. But don't make your character do things just because your plot says he must. Give him a plausible prod, a clue, a subplot that leads him to stumble upon the larger plot. Then play out the logical thread of events, even if it goes somewhere you didn't intend to go. Failing to show cause or consequence creates so-called "plot holes" where the audience knows something should have happened, but you didn't show it happening, so they lose trust in you as a storyteller.

3. Emotional development, lack of. Creating good characters is a tricky business. Some authors rely on physical description and backstory to denote character, and some readers respond best to that type of characterization. I tend to fall more into the method-acting style of character development, wherein I rely on dialogue/dialect, actions, and descriptions of business or body language to convey personality. But whichever method you use, your characters must go through a range of emotions, and ideally come out with a different worldview by the end of the plot. Maybe they fall in love, or learn to trust, or find a home. Maybe they lose their innocence, or man up, or realize the world is not as safe as they thought. But they must change, and you must show the events that lead to that change. It should be gradual, earned (cause), and believable (consequence).

4. Point, lack of. A plot is a series of events, but it is not a story. "The Moral of the Story" may sound like an antiquated phrase, because modern fiction is mostly written to entertain, not to teach. (Editors don't want preachy stories and readers don't want to be preached at.) Nevertheless, there has to be some payoff to the reader. The point, or payoff, comes when the hero a) resolves his conflict/gets what he wants/restores his world, and b) takes stock of how it has changed him. It's not enough just to come to the end of the plot. You have to show us what we learned along the way.

I'm not a big fan of how-to-write books, but one good title that discusses structural issues is Jack Bickham's The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). If you really want to improve your fiction, I recommend taking a persuasive writing class, the kind that teaches good old-fashioned rhetoric: narrative essay, procedural essay, argumentative essay. Most colleges require such a class for their incoming Freshmen. Most people have agonized memories of struggling through such classes, but these are your ABC's of structure, folks. If you can't craft a simple essay, you can't build a scene, much less a plot.

Beyond that, you could do worse than to take some literature survey classes or Poetry & Prose 101. Reading the classics and discussing why they work is a lot more useful than aping the current bestsellers.

*Not most mainstream fiction, anyway. Style can certainly help you but it isn't the deciding factor.

**This is not to say, if you have a good plot you can just let your mechanics slide. I really would not recommend it, particularly if you are an unpublished novelist. Reading sloppy text really is painful and will probably get your manuscript rejected after the first page. Just as in grade school: neatness counts.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

coconut sour cream cookies recipe

This is one of my mom's recipes. I have no idea where she got it, but it's been in the family at least three generations, maybe four. So there is nothing low-calorie, or low-fat, or low-carb, or remotely redeemingly healthy about this recipe. Those who attempt to healthify it will be flogged with a wet noodle.

Seriously, though, this is a HUGE recipe. It makes about 6 dozen cookies, which is perfect for making at Christmastime because they freeze pretty darn well and you can give them away. I have made half a batch on occasion, and that works pretty well, too. Two things that don't work: baking them in the summer –I once tried it and was rewarded with a gooey block of cookie that we had to keep in the fridge and scoop out with a spoon– and, trying to leave the coconut out of the recipe. Coconut has a lot of natural fat, and the sweetened shredded kind adds necessary sweetness and moisture to the recipe. This is a rich, cakelike cookie with a delicate flavor.

Grandma Rebecca's Coconut Sour Cream Cookies

Cream together:
1 cup butter, softened
2 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Stir together:
5 cups sifted flour (either sift before measuring, or fluff and scoop lightly into measuring cup)
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt (may want to increase if using unsalted butter)

1 12-oz carton full-fat cultured sour cream (Daisy or Knutson brand--Land O'Lakes has starch fillers.)
1 packed cup sweetened shredded coconut, such as Angel Flake.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients in 3-4 stages, alternating with the sour cream, beating after each addition. Makes a very stiff, sticky dough. Stir in coconut with a stout spoon. Cover dough and chill 3-4 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375º F, and if necessary raise the oven rack to a slot just above center. An insulated aluminum cookie sheet is excellent for these, because they should not be browned. No need to grease cookie sheet, although a parchment liner is useful. 

Scoop out small balls of dough (about 1 in. diameter). The recipe says roll between palms but this dough is so sticky I usually just pat it into shape with a finger on the cookie sheet. Give them some space on the sheet; they will spread a bit.

The cookie balls can be dipped in more coconut before baking, in which case the coconut browns and gives a nice toasty crunch on top. I like them sprinkled with colored sugar.

Bake at 375º for 10-12 minutes or until the tops are just resilient to a touch, like little cakes. DO NOT BROWN. Remove promptly from the baking sheet to a cooling sheet of parchment, or other flat surface.

Cool the cookie sheet completely before mounting the next batch. When fully cool, cover tightly and store at cool room temperature. These are fine out of the oven, but are best on the second or third day. They can also be frozen in plastic baggies for a week or two with no harm done.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top Five Christmas movies

I've considered doing a list like this for a long time, but I never had enough choices to pad it out. You gotta have at least five to make it work, and obviously I am going to have somewhat subversive tastes in Christmas movies. So here they are, in the order in which I first viewed them, not the order in which they were released.
  • Batman Returns – Michele Pfeiffer in a black latex catsuit against a backdrop of icy unfeeling Gotham City. Plus Danny DeVito snickering and shuffling across the screen, and Christopher Walken parodying himself. Plot and character development are irrelevant here; this is all about the avatars. Best line: "I don't know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel soooo much yummier."
  • The Ref – Dennis Leary is a cat burglar who botches his getaway and takes bickering marrieds Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey as his hostages. They are on the verge of divorce, and their couples therapy is going nowhere. Leary ends up refereeing their bitter arguments--and eventually the dynamics of the whole nasty family--at gunpoint. Very funny and very foul-mouthed, and of course the performances of the three master thespians are terrific. But probably my favorite part is Glynnis Johns (whom I last knew as the sweet-faced, soft-voiced Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins) playing the relentless, iron-fisted family matriarch. Best line is when Leary threatens to tie her to the back of a truck and she replies contemptuously, "You don't have the balls."
  • The Long Kiss Goodnight – This one is more nostalgia than anything. Geena Davis wasn't the first, nor the best, of the new wave of kick-ass heroines in the 90's--that honor goes to Linda Hamilton. Nevertheless this movie gets props for its mockery of the buddy format--with the buddy played by hapless, flapless, Samuel L. Jackson. Naturally, he gets most of the good lines, but his best moments are when he doesn't speak at all. Like when we think all is lost, but suddenly the opening lick of "Bad to the Bone" rips out and Jackson sits up, bloody but galvanized, in the front seat of his car. Or after the climax when he's driving through a hailstorm of flaming debris and the little girl shrieks, "Don't hit the cars!" and he gives her a look of utter WTF incredulity.
  • Die Hard – Mayhem, improbable stunts and witty rejoinders accompanied by multiple renditions of "Ode to Joy." I watched this again a couple weeks ago and I couldn't help noticing, it is oddly more feminist and multicultural than much of what has come out of Hollywood in the 30 years since. Best line: Although the "yippy-ki-yay" line has become something of a signature, it's a  throwaway in the context of the movie. My personal favorite is when Alan Rickman is on the phone listing the terrorist group members he (ostensibly) wants freed as part of his phony negotiation. The last one he lists is "Asian Dawn," which draws a perplexed look from Alexander Godunov. Rickman puts his hand over the phone and hisses, "I read about them in Newsweek."
  • Bell, Book, and Candle – The clothes. The Zodiac club. The mid-century Christmas decorations.  The magic. The clothes. The romance. Kim Novak's sleepy-eyed purr. And yes, the CLOTHES. The only thing I dislike about this movie is the ending. I keep wishing some bright young female director--Drew Barrymore, maybe--would remake it and change the ending so Gillian doesn't give up her powers for love. Best line: After Shep says "Magic In Mexico" sold like the Kinsey report, Gillian smirks and says she figures the author was just fed a lot of fake touristy stuff. Shep replies, "Maybe they did the same to Kinsey."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

beef stew or beef pot pie filling

This is the basic beef treatment I've been experimenting with. I think I finally got it where I want it. I've been making a stovetop stew with it, but it would also be a good filling for beef pot pie, with a lard crust or biscuits baked over the top. These are only approximate amounts, since I never measure.

Take a pound of beef chuck stew meat or arm roast with some fat on it. Place in heavy stock pot with enough water to half-cover meat. Mince up half an onion and throw in. Add a dollop of olive oil or butter if desired to enrich flavor. Add a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, about a quarter-cup of cooking sherry, and a couple cubes of beef bullion.

Season with 1 tsp. rosemary, 1 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp. white pepper, pinch of cayenne, plus salt & black pepper to taste. Cover tightly and simmer medium-low for two hours. You may want to remove meat after one hour, trim any bone or excess fat and cut into bite-sized pieces. Don't skim the broth! Beef fat is good for you.

After trimming out the meat, I usually add some beef broth/drippings from my freezer. Every time I make a roast, I either save the pan juices or make them into gravy; if there's gravy leftover I freeze that, too. When I make a stew or pot pie, I thaw one of those small tubs of gravy and add them to the pot. Roasted beef bones add wonderful richness and gelatin to the sauce. But that's just me bragging and you don't have to do it.

When meat is nicely tender, it's time to add vegetables. For stew typically I use 3-4 red potatoes, a couple of carrots, and frozen green peas because that's what I like with my beef gravy. Add the vegetables, with just enough additional water to let everything swim freely. Cook low, covered, for another 30-45 minutes until the potatoes are tender and the liquid is slightly reduced. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

Make a slurry of cornstarch or arrowroot starch with cold water and stir rapidly into the simmering stew, to thicken. Once this is done it can be kept warm or reheated without harm. As long as it is stirred occasionally and not allowed to get too dry, it can continue to simmer for another hour or more; it will only improve in flavor and texture.

For a pot pie, just allow the vegetables to simmer for 10-15 minutes while you prepare the pie crust and preheat the oven, then dump the stew into a casserole dish and slap a crust on top. Bake according to crust requirements.

Other vegetable combinations could be used. Turnips and rutabaga are great with beef, and many people like celery. Or you could just dump in a bag of frozen mixed vegetables for a quick-and-dirty job.

A pound of stew meat, 3-4 cups diced red potatoes and a couple of carrots make four generous servings.