Sunday, March 31, 2013

Just Take It Bird By Bird...

I have read many books on writing, as a way to procrastinate the actual writing part of writing a book.  Some of them were a complete waste of time.  Others were pure gold and I would like to share one of those treasures with you all today.

If you are like me and feel you would almost rather throw yourself in front of a bus than face the overwhelming fear of rejection and failure in your writing, you should read this book.  It speaks to the insecurities in all of us as writers and as people.  The book is called Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

Front Cover   

What I love most about this book is that there is an entire chapter called "Shitty First Drafts" and the next chapter is "Perfectionism".  The most difficult obstacle I have faced in my writing and still struggle with today is the fear.  The overwhelming anxiety that I am not good enough and have no business pretending to be.  I'm not sure if I've alluded to my personality enough here, (I've probably beaten you over the head with it by now) but to shorten a very long laundry list of quirks, I am a perfectionist.  Through the course of finding my voice as a writer, I have come to the realization that perfectionism is a distraction from reality.  It's like a blindfold that prevents you from seeing the truly marvelous mess of life.  Somewhere down the line, I made the very convoluted decision that the possibility of failure was much too scary and not even worth the effort it takes to put myself out there.  Miss Lamott explains it much better than I do:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.  I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die.  The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."

She goes on in more detail, but I'll let you discover it for yourselves in the book.  This mindset is so detrimental to achieving success as a writer, and I continue to fight it on a daily basis.  If you have even the tiniest bit of self-doubt, which a lot of writers do, check out this book.  It might change your perspective.  At the very least, it will give you valuable insight on writing and life.  Happy Easter, everyone!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Food For Thought Friday- Scones

 The temperature is rising with the sun's prevalence and inklings of green are sprouting up through the deadness winter left behind.  Spring is in the air and the sweet aroma of ripe strawberries was beckoning to me at the grocery store this week.  So instead of buying just one container like any normal person would do, I went strawberry crazy and bought two.  (Two is always better than one, right?)  Well, days went by and after my family had its fill of strawberries, I was left with a bunch sitting in my fridge and getting riper by the minute.  What's a girl to do?

Make scones, of course!  I love scones.  They are sophisticated muffins.  And sophistication is good.  These scones are very easy to make and capture the essence of spring with the bright flavors of strawberry and lemon.  So whip up a batch and fill your house with the delightful scent of spring berries.

Strawberry Scones

1 cup finely diced fresh strawberries
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
zest of 1/2 a lemon (about a tsp.)
6 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. light cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 425.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Place the diced strawberries on several sheets of paper towel to absorb their juice.  Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl.  Stir in lemon zest.  Cut in butter with a pastry blender or a fork until the flour-coated pieces are the size of peas.  Add the strawberries, tossing gently to coat.  Make a well in the center.  Blend the 1/2 cup cream and the vanilla extract in a measuring cup and pour them into the well.  Using as few strokes as possible, gently stir the dough until it forms a ball.  Let the dough sit for 1 minute.  Lightly flour your work surface and your hands.  Place the dough on the floured surface and knead it gently three or four times.  Transfer it to the large baking sheet and pat into an 8-inch circle.  Cut the circle into 8 wedges, just as you would a pizza.  Separate the pieces so that they are at least an inch apart.  Brush the tops of the scones with the remaining Tbsp. of cream and then sprinkle with the extra sugar.  Bake the scones until the outsides are crusty and just starting to turn golden brown, about 18 minutes.  Let them cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool before serving.  (If you can stand the wait.  I never can.)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Are You an Insomniac?

Just wanted to share a fun poem by one of my favorites, Maya Angelou.  I am realizing that sometimes I have to force myself to stop writing and go to sleep.  Otherwise, I end up resembling a caveman and grunting at people.  Not very pleasant.


There are some nights when
sleep plays coy,
aloof and disdainful.
And all the wiles
that I employ to win
its service to my side
are useless as wounded pride,
and much more painful. 

Maya Angelou

I read an interesting article about how E.M. Cioran never slept and counted insomnia as a blessing.  You can find it here.
Would you consider insomnia a blessing in disguise?

Road Trip Wednesday: Best Book of March

It's Road Trip Wednesday Time

This week's question on YA Highway's Road Trip Wednesday is:

What was the best book you read in March?

Oh, decisions!  How will I ever choose?  Oh wait, this is easy.  I would love to project an aura of Wonder Woman to you all and boast about how I've read twelve books this month in addition to spring cleaning my entire house, finishing my own novel, and discovering the cure for childhood boredom.  Unfortunately, none of those things happened in the month of March.  Perhaps in April...

Anyway, I really only read one book this past month, so I suppose it gets my vote.  It was really good and deserves to be best of March in my opinion.  The book was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Not really a YA book, I know, but hey, it's slim pickins around here!  I love the dark and edgy tone that is just dripping with wit and suspense.  I would definitely recommend it.

This question is a great reminder of the importance of reading as a writer.  I am a firm believer that if you continually read good writing, it will begin to rub off on you.  If you surround yourself with crap or with no writing at all, that's probably all that will come out when you write: crap, or nothing at all.  So immerse yourself in great literature of all kinds and further your craft.  Happy Wednesday.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

10 Reasons Your Non-Writer Friends and Family Think You're Crazy

     1.  Sometimes you enter the bedroom, laptop under your arm and a thermos of coffee in your hand, and despite the screaming children and a pleading husband, you emerge hours later without any idea what's going on
     2.  While you are writing on your computer, you unknowingly start squinting at the screen and  lean closer and closer until you are inches away and when your loving (concerned) husband asks what you are doing, you snap at him for disrupting your concentration

     3.  Your darling child has to ask you what's for lunch seven times before it actually sinks in

     4.  You find yourself staring into space while out and about, and while you know that you are plotting out your story or thinking up good dialogue, the lady picking out a bunch of bananas at the grocery store does not and shoots you an "Are you supposed to be out of your straight jacket and among the public by yourself?" kind of look.

     5.  You gradually become more irritable and begin to resemble something of a troll.  You realize this is more true than a joke when you find you would actually prefer to remain holed-up in a cave somewhere until you finish the manuscript.

     6.  Your friend or family member asks you what you think of the new Pope and you reply, "Wait, what?  I didn't know we had a new Pope."

     7.  You spend most of your day having entire conversations with people that don't really exist

     8.  You start asking random questions of people like, "Honey what is that thingy called that you pull down with your thumb on the back of a gun?" or "Is it possible to build an entire complex underground beneath a skyscraper?"

     9.  You begin to show complete disregard for personal hygiene as well as social norms like mealtimes, appropriate dress in a public setting (you mean I can't wear my sweatpants six days a week???), etc.

     10.  Even though you know that your eight month-old baby wakes up at or before 5am every morning like clockwork, you stupidly stay awake into the wee hours of the morning writing and then are completely dumbfounded as to how you only managed to get three hours of sleep (this could also have something to do with #5)

    Wednesday, March 20, 2013

    Road Trip Wednesday

    Before I begin with YA Highway's Road Trip Wednesday question, I would like to address something first.  There is a bit of a stigma that goes along with both reading and writing the young adult genre that I would hereby like to banish from this blog.  Just because it is titled "Young Adult" does not mean you have to be a young adult to enjoy it.  There are some wonderful books out there that I, myself, have enjoyed and been laughed at or whispered about because of said enjoyment.  Guess what?

    I don't care.

    You can call me childish.  You can call me silly.  You can call me whatever you want.  I like some young adult books.  And I have entertained the idea of writing a young adult novel as well.  I think it's high time some of the literary snobs stopped turning up their nose every time a serious writer mentions they are writing a young adult piece.  It may not be as profound as your literary novel, but it means just as much to just as many people, whether they are teenagers or grown-ups with big imaginations.

    There, now that's out of the way.

    YA Highway's Road Trip Wednesday

    I have been a follower of the YA Highway for a while now and decided I would start participating in their Road Trip Wednesday "Blog Carnival".  They post a question and invite followers to answer on their own blogs.  If you visit their site, you can click on the different links in the comments and read everyone's replies.  The question for this week is:

    What novellas would you like to see inspire YA books?

    The first novella that came to mind is George Orwell's Animal Farm.  I remember reading it in junior high school and thinking wow, this guy had a serious issue with Russian dictators.  Or maybe just an insider's knowledge of the hierarchy on a farm.  Anyway, it wasn't until much later that I developed an appreciation for the message within the story.  If the story didn't leave as much of an impression on you, let me refresh your memory.  

    On the dystopian Manor Farm, the animals, lead by some radical pigs, revolt against the tyrannical Mr. Jones.  They establish their own set of rules called Animalism (a.k.a. Communism) and unite themselves against the humans.  But that sneaky pig, Napoleon, takes certain liberties with the rules and leads the animals back into oppression with his "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" law.

    I think these timeless concepts of equality, false allegiance, and political corruption would make a kick-ass YA novel today.  There are literally millions of instances where young people come in contact with the ideas of oppression, virtue, and rebellion.  I would love to see that message captured into a sort of YA cautionary tale.  I can see a Snowball-type character, the unsung hero, defeating the evil and power-hungry Napoleon character.  Maybe it could be adapted to the hierarchy of high school?  I think we're on to something here...

    Thanks for reading and remember, "Four legs good, two legs bad"!  Just kidding.  Enjoy your Wednesday.

    Monday, March 18, 2013

    To Outline or Not To Outline... Is It Really a Question?

    The old debate of outlining vs. not outlining has been carrying on since the dawn of the novel.  (At least it seems that way.  I wasn't really around then, so I'm not positive.)  There are those who claim outlining is a necessity for any well-written novel.  It provides the structure needed to achieve the key elements of plot.  Without it, a writer is lost in an endless sea of dead-ends and over-explored sub-plots.  On the other side, there are the free-thinkers.  I must admit, I have always believed myself to be a member of this camp.  The ones that believe an outline feels kind of like being straight-jacketed and trapped inside a very small box.  Claustrophobic feelings arise and keep the writer from experiencing the creative environment they need to write.

    With my latest project, however, I found myself craving the unthinkable: STRUCTURE.  Rules; something to give me a good swift kick when I started rambling off-course or shine a beacon of light when I got lost and couldn't see a way out.  Another bonus I discovered along the outlining trail: I was no longer restrained by the shackles of chronology.  Since I vaguely knew where my story was going, I could write whatever scene I felt like writing on a particular day.  It was strangely liberating.

    The fact is, a novel needs structure.  Otherwise, what you have is a hot literary mess.  But the actual process of outlining can be incredibly intimidating.  It was for me, anyway.  I discovered a way to tone down the intimidation and I would like to share it with you.

    You will need: a pack of 3x5 index cards or some other small scraps of paper

    First, and most importantly, brew a heaping pot of strong coffee or tea.  It is essential to the creative process.  (Not really, but just go with it.)

    In the early, brainstorming and listening for ideas stage of your storytelling, write down one specific note or idea about the story on each note card or scrap of paper.  Your ideas could be actions, a specific detail about a character or setting, a phrase one of your characters says, or a broader direction the story is going in.  Write down all the ideas you have.  Anything and everything.  Don't think it will be relevant or help your outline at all?  Stop analyzing and just write it down!

    Once you have all your ideas written down, you can start arranging the note cards into a timeline of events.  Note that this will be a continuing process and you will most likely be adding many more cards to the timeline along the way.  It is also important to note that I started doing this on my bed, only to have the entire thing crash in on itself when I got up.  Learn from my mistake and start on a hard, flat surface like the kitchen table or the floor.  If you find yourself overwhelmed with a huge stack of cards, try sorting them into the three acts of your story: at or near the beginning, at or near the middle, and at or near the end.  That way you can sort each separate pile into a more manageable timeline of its own.

    If you are having trouble making decisions on when certain events should be taking place, just make your best guess.  That is the beauty of this type of outlining: nothing is permanent.  If you change your mind, you can just rearrange the cards.  It's like the commitment-phobes' guide to outlining.

    Now read through your timeline and mull it over.  Does it sound like a structured story?  Then the writing can begin, my friend.  Does it lack continuity and sound more like bits and pieces of several different stories?  Maybe you need to spend more time listening to your ideas and brainstorming where to go with them.  If you are thinking of writing your story out of chronological order, you can rearrange the cards based on the order of events you have in your head.

    This less intimidating style of outlining really helped me, a self-proclaimed organic writer, structure my story into something that resembled a plot line.  If you are still one of those radicals that can't handle the confinement of any type of outline, so be it.  Live free and write organically.  For the rest of you, just give it a shot.  What have you got to lose?  (besides a messy storyline or none at all)

    By the way, check out this awesome example of why outlining is kind of essential to a novel by Larry Brooks.  It may blow your organic writing mind.

    Sunday, March 17, 2013

    He Said, She Said: Finding the Balance of Good Dialogue

    5 Things to Remember When Writing Dialogue

    Dialogue is such an important part of a novel.  It shapes characters, saying more about them than descriptions ever could.  It is also a much subtler way to hint at certain traits you want the reader to pick up on without painstakingly spelling it out.  Dialogue, when it's done right, can enrich your story and build depth.  It can also damage it beyond all repair.  So where is the balance?  

    I read an article about an editor sharing some pointers to writers once.  It was so long ago I couldn't even tell you who the editor was, but the point of it really stuck with me.  One of the tips she shared was about dialogue.  She said that the first thing some of her agent friends would look at when picking up a proposed manuscript was how much white space was on the pages.  Before even reading a word of it, they would flip through and decide whether or not there was too much or too little blank space.  If it wasn't a good ratio, they would toss it aside, without even giving it a chance.

    Scary, right?  To think that the amount of dialogue in your story has that much influence right out of the gate?  Well, don't despair.  I've got a few tips that can help make your dialogue the best it can be.

         1.  Scene vs. Summary 
    Throughout your story, some pieces of the plot will be detailed scenes and others will be summaries or reflection.  Part of the balance of good dialogue is knowing when to pull the reader into a scene and include lots of juicy dialogue and when to summarize or reflect upon the less active parts.  If you tend to write lots of dialogue in your story, it may be beneficial to pull out some of the less dynamic scenes and summarize them for the reader.  If you are the opposite and tend to write very little dialogue, try to pinpoint some crucial parts of the story to expand on in a scene with lots of important dialogue.  It's good to follow a dynamic scene with some summary or reflection.

    2.   TV Speak vs. Real People Speak
    While watching many of the latest sitcoms and dramas, I have noticed that the characters on tv have a very special language that is not used anywhere else.  I like to refer to it as TV Speak.  It is the unending, witty banter that assaults my ears every time I watch and sometimes makes me want to throw things at the tv.  If you haven't already figured it out, I will let you in on the secret: real people in everyday life DO NOT TALK LIKE THAT.  Yes, sometimes it is more potent than everyday language, but I find it downright annoying.  So please, do not feel that because you are putting a story out there in public view for all to see, that you must use TV Speak.  Maybe it's just me, but I find that the more real a character seems, the more it pulls me deeper into the story.  (It's not just me, by the way.  It's agents, editors, publishers, and most of the general public, too)  So take some time to listen to real people having real conversations in the real world.  Your characters will thank you for it.

    3.   He Said, She Said
    When writing a scene, it is important to make it clear who is saying what in a conversation.  The easiest and most commonly used way to distinguish the speaker is by using the word said.  Use it too often, i.e. after every single voiced comment, and the reader is bombarded by an army of saids, disrupting the otherwise pleasant flow of language in the story.  Use it too sparingly and the reader may become utterly confused.  Once again, the all-important concept of balance comes into play.  When two people are speaking, you can establish the "he said, she said" with their first comments.  After that, it's not really necessary to continue with "he said" after every comment.  We, the intelligent readers, can figure out the ABAB talking scheme for ourselves.  Once you write in some narration, though, you should re-establish who is talking again.  When you have more than two people speaking to each other, it's important to sprinkle a healthy dose of saids, just enough to keep us from losing track of who is speaking.

    4.   Said Substitutes
    Other words, such as replied, answered, or asked, can be substituted for said. Approach this concept with caution, though.  If you find that your characters are chortling, bellowing, or snickering, you have waded past the safe zone and into the deep end of horribly cliched, bad dialogue.  Just. Don't. Do it.  Be frugal with your said substitutes or you will end up slowing down your story significantly.

    5.   Name-Calling
    One of my biggest pet-peeves in reading dialogue is when the speakers, whether familiar with each other or not, use each others' names every single time they speak.  Here, let me show you:

    "Henry, I told you to take out the garbage yesterday."
    "But Aunt Jenna, I'm meeting some friends."
    "No, Henry.  You need to take out the garbage now."
    "You're so mean Aunt Jenna."

    Ick.  It is annoying, unrealistic, and just plain unnatural.  Another pointer about this same passage: Don't allow your characters to address each other by their titles all the time either.  How often do you address your aunts, uncles, or doctors like that?  That's what I thought.  

    Dialogue is a tricky medium and using it correctly is essential to a successful novel.  I hope these pointers help you writers out there as they have helped me.  Happy dialoguing!

    Friday, March 15, 2013

    Food For Thought Friday

    Food For Thought:
    Banana Muffins

    These muffins are divine.  They are fluffy and banana-y and everything that is right with the world.  Please enjoy liberally!

    2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    1/4 - 1/2 cup chopped nuts, depending on your affinity for crunch
    1 tsp. baking powder
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1/4 tsp. baking soda
    3/4 cup packed brown sugar
    1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
    1/2 cup mashed banana (about 2 small bananas)
    1/2 cup sour cream
    2 eggs

    Preheat oven to 350 and prepare 12-cup muffin pan (either with paper liners or grease the pan).  Stir together flour, nuts, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, whisk together brown sugar, cooled melted butter, mashed bananas, sour cream and eggs until thoroughly combined.  Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture just until combined; do not over-mix or you will have banana hockey pucks!  Divide among muffin cups and bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

    Happy Friday everyone!

    Thursday, March 14, 2013

    Literary Adultery & Brand Spankin' New Ideas

    I was routinely going about my day on Tuesday, putting a dent in the seemingly insurmountable pile of laundry when it hit me.


    Just like that, I was forcibly knocked upside the head with a new idea for a story.  While I did feel committed to my current project and wanted to prevent any jealousy issues, this new idea was just that: new.  It was shiny and enticing and calling out to me like that last piece of cake, sitting lonely on the counter.  How could I possibly resist?

    So that's where I have been for the last two days- huddled in the corner with my laptop, living out my own literary tryst.  I can't help feeling a little guilty, since I haven't worked on the project that I've been faithfully tied to for two years at all.  What will it think?  When I go back to it, which I inevitably will, will it even want me anymore? 

    Ok, enough melodrama.  But it did make me think; is there a policy on what to do with new ideas when you are knee-deep in a current project?  Should they be forgotten so as to focus on the task at hand?  Or should they be given your full attention so as not to forget what could be the next great idea?  I think a strategy somewhere in the middle would work best for me.  I don't want to lose it in the clutter of my mind, but I also don't want to forget where I was going with my first idea.  I wrote down about twenty pages or so to give me plenty to go on when I am finished with this project and ready to tackle another.

    Now I'd better give my neglected first-manuscript some attention before it leaves me altogether.

    What do you all do when an idea strikes in the middle of something else?

    Monday, March 11, 2013

    The Craptastic Early Years: When Taste Exceeds Talent

    Just to recap: I have been working on this book for about two years now.  I took almost a whole year to explore the concept and characters, and then began the actual writing about a year ago.  Why has it taken so long, you ask?  Because I move at the pace of a sloth; to get into the mindset of writing and shut out the laundry piling up, dishes in the sink, crumbs on the counters, toys on the floor and dust on every piece of furniture we own takes a herculean amount of effort for me.  Needless to say, I would be elated to finish this draft and put some space between us.  (My neglected house and family would be just as elated, I'm sure)

    So when I sit down to write and find that the only thing coming out of me is pure garbage spewed onto the page, I get upset; so upset that I cannot continue.  I then decide, to the dismay of writing gurus everywhere, to go back and reread some of the story.  What do I find?


    Pure word vomit, splattered everywhere.  Hello, my name is Amy, and right now I hate everything I have written.  What I really want to do is delete the entire thing and start over from scratch.  Thankfully, my better judgement stepped in and directed me, instead, to some wonderful resources on the interweb.

    I consulted the wise Jane Friedman and her plethora of writing advice.   I found a post titled, "You Hate Your Writing?  That's A Good Sign" and lit up at the happy coincidence.  She describes a video series on YouTube from Ira Glass on story telling.  I dutifully clicked on the link and watched the series.  I would highly recommend watching this, whether you are a writer in crisis or not. 

    He is talking about broadcasting in particular, but it does apply to any creative endeavor, really.  He says that when you are just starting out in the creative process, what you are producing is crap.  This is normal to produce crap and everyone does.  You have to push through the crap to get to the good stuff.  He also says that the fact that you know it's crap is a good sign.  Your taste is good, if not great, and that is what made you jump into the creative fray to begin with.  You can see, with your good taste, that what you are producing is not living up to that and disappointing you.  With practice, you will close the gap between taste and talent, but for now, be satisfied in the garbage and don't give up.

    I cannot tell you how uplifting it was to come across this.  I knew, starting out, that I wasn't going to just type excellence on my computer every day and finish a perfect book instantly.  But when you're stuck in the middle of a long process, it can be hard to see any kind of closure and push through to get to it.

    If you are in a similar place this morning and feel you would rather claw your eyes out than continue writing the same trash you have been writing since, oh, the first time you picked up a pen, know that you are not alone in your craptastic early years and that it just means you have exceptional taste.

    Sunday, March 10, 2013

    Cookies are like big words

    There you are, plugging away at your manuscript.  You have made it past the big event, and are now transitioning to the next event.  Transitions are hard, by the way.  You find yourself with less material in the "down-time" than you thought you would, and are desperately trying to fill space to make it to the next event.  And it occurs to you: I know what I'll do!  I'll knock their socks off with my unbelievable writing prowess!  So you start using really big words.  They aren't necessary, as they don't get your point across any better than small words.  But they are so delectable and enticing, aren't they?

    We have all made this mistake, many times over.  I'm pretty sure I do this on a daily basis, coming from a poetry background where each word should impress and evoke feeling.  But we have to be careful in using all these big fancy-schmancy words all the time, because they can seriously detract from your story and pretty soon that's all the reader will see is you trying to impress with your elaborate wording and failing miserably, and they will STOP READING.

    Cookies, although delicious and exceptionally fun to eat, are also unnecessary.  We do not need to consume them in order to maintain a healthy diet.  If we eat too many, we begin to resemble the Pillsbury Dough Boy.  Too few, and our lives are boring and void of any meaning whatsoever.  (maybe that's just me)  Do you see the correlation, here?

    And so, I leave you with a cookie recipe that I find delicious and the boy (my son) loves them too.  Proceed to ingesting copious amounts whilst composing your inscribed fictitious tome.

    (See, didn't sound that great, did it?)

    Granola Raisin Bran Cookies
    2/3 cup sugar
    1/3 cup packed brown sugar
    1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
    1/3 cup peanut butter
    1 egg
    1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
    1 cup all-purpose flour
    1/2 tsp. baking soda
    1 1/2 cups crunchy granola raisin bran cereal
    1 cup white chocolate chips

    Preheat oven to 350.  Beat sugars, butter and peanut butter until creamy.  Add egg and vanilla; beat well.  Combine flour and baking soda and add to butter mixture; mix well.  Stir in cereal and chocolate chips.  OPTIONAL: I always chill my cookie dough for about 30 mins. before baking.  I think it makes for a chewier cookie that is not flat or too crispy.  After chilling, drop by level tablespoon 1 1/2 inches apart onto parchment-lined cookie sheets.  Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown.  Let stand for 1 minute before removing to racks to cool.  Makes about 3 dozen.

    Saturday, March 9, 2013

    The Parallel of Kids and Composition

    5 Ways Writing A Novel Is Like Having A Child

    I had a baby boy five years ago.  Then I had a baby girl eight months ago.  Now I feel like I am starting the process all over again with another new baby: my book.  Ok, so I realize that this might be a slight exaggeration, but they do have a few things in common.  If you are just starting out, congratulations on your new bundle of prose!  Parenting a novel can be just as tricky as parenting for real.
    1. You will lose sleep.  Just like a newborn, this project is going to keep you up at night.  There are those few lucky people that have the ability to write during the day and keep all ideas and brainstorming out of the nocturnal hours.  I have never met one, but I hear they exist.  For the rest of us, ideas come at odd hours and after kids are put to bed and houses cleaned seems to be the only viable time to get any writing done. 
    2.  Stories crave sustenance, too.  Those tiny bodies need nourishment to grow, and a developing story is no different.  At the beginning of the process, a story requires a lot of fleshing out to figure out exactly where it's going.  So give it a healthy dose of time and energy in the early stages.  Every two hours may be a little excessive, but you get the idea.
    3. Your instinct will be to protect it at all costs.  When crazy Aunt Edna, who reaks of cigarette smoke and shakes like a maraca asks to hold the new baby, will you say, "Yeah, sure!  Go right ahead!"  I think not.  You will think of your precious new manuscript in much the same way.  I haven't let anyone read mine yet and it will be a long time before I'm ready to.
    4. Your characters will sass back.  And argue.  And throw tantrums when they don't get their way.  Not really.  But they will gain independence as their voices become stronger.  You will find that once you nail down a character's goals and motivations, they will begin to speak for themselves.  You will know when their words and actions are true to their core beliefs.
    5. Eventually, you will have to let go.  Watching your child grow up and acheive milestones is amazing.  There comes a day in every parent's life when they have to let go, whether it be at school, daycare, or just for an hour with the babysitter.  You will have to trust that it is in everyone's best interest and that they are in good hands.  When your manuscript is finished, you will begin the querying process, wherein the precious baby you have lovingly and painstakingly crafted over days or months or years will have to be released.  It is a sad and scary thing to share something so personal with the world, but know that it is the ultimate goal to be published and every writer goes through it at some point.  More than likely, it will be rejected.  But here's to hoping it gets accepted out there in that big world.

    I know why the caged bird sings... do you?

    At the risk of sounding a bit cliche, I must share one of my absolute favorite poems of all time.  Maya Angelou really does hit the nail on the head when it comes to life lessons, in my opinion.  I rediscovered this poem not too long ago and it has stuck with me.  I find it pertains to the place I am at right now, both in writing and in life.  So read, if you like:

    I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

    The free bird leaps
    on the back of the wind
    and floats downstream
    till the current ends
    and dips his wings
    in the orange sun rays
    and dares to claim the sky.

    But a bird that stalks
    down his narrow cage
    can seldom see through
    his bars of rage
    his wings are clipped and
    his feet are tied
    so he opens his throat to sing.

    The caged bird sings
    with fearful trill
    of the things unknown
    but longed for still
    and his tune is heard
    on the distant hill for the caged bird
    sings of freedom

    The free bird thinks of another breeze
    and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
    and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
    and he names the sky his own.

    But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
    his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
    his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
    so he opens his throat to sing

    The caged bird sings
    with a fearful trill
    of things unknown
    but longed for still
    and his tune is heard
    on the distant hill
    the caged bird

    sings of freedom.

    Up to this point in my life, I have been coasting.  Yes, I have accomplished things.  Yes I have been busy with getting married, having kids, moving out of state, blah blah blah.  But to my own standards, I have been putting along comfortably, taking no risks and therefor reaping little benefit.

    Well, it's time to change all that.  This poem really struck a chord with me because I think one of its main themes is the importance of living life to its fullest and appreciating the opportunities we are given.  It's time to sing like a free bird and strive for excellence!

    Now, if I could just finish this novel...

    Desert Island Recipe: Muffins

    Given the title of this blog, I felt obligated to provide a recipe for muffins.  While searching through my extensive collection, I tried to pick just one recipe to share for today.  It was hard.  It might not yet be evident, but I absolutely LOVE muffins, or any kind of breakfast confection, for that matter.  So choosing just one recipe to share for the day was a challenge, to say the least.  After much deliberation, this is the recipe I would choose if I were marooned on a desert island.  And the desert island had a kitchen equipped with baking utensils.

    At our house, these muffins are referred to as "Daddy Muffins" because they happen to be my husband's favorite.  To gain top approval from my somewhat picky husband is no small feat, people.  That should speak for itself.  This recipe is also very easy and customizable, which are two magnificent things in a busy and picky household.  Enjoy!

    Berries & Cream Muffins
    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 cup sugar
    1/2 tsp. baking powder
    1/2 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries or blueberries (sometimes I use both)
    2 eggs, lightly beaten
    1 cup (8 oz.) sour cream
    1/2 cup canola oil
    1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

    3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
    3 Tbsp. quick-cooking oats
    2 Tbsp. sugar
    1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
    2 Tbsp. cold butter, diced

    Preheat oven to 400.  In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt; add the berries and toss gently.  In another bowl, combine the eggs, sour cream, oil and vanilla.  Stir into dry ingredients just until moistened.  For streusel, combine flour, oats, sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Cut in butter with a pastry blender or fork until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Fill muffin cups two-thirds full with batter.  Sprinkle streusel over muffins before baking.  Bake for 18-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool for 5 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack.

    Why Poetry=Better Prose

    I have been writing poetry ever since I can remember and before I really even knew what it was.  Only recently did I delve into the world of novel writing.  When I did, it was exhilarating.  You mean I get to describe in drawn-out detail all my characters’ thoughts, emotions, sensations, tiny infinitesimal movements, etc.?  But then I reached page thirty of boring description and backstory and got stuck.  I stared at the blinking cursor on the screen like a Neanderthal for days.  It was like writers’ block times a hundred.  So, how did I get over it, you ask?

    I wrote poetry.

    Lots of it.  I put the novel aside and relished in the focus of writing a finite poem.  And it helped SO MUCH. 

    Poetry is on a much smaller scale than fiction and requires more focus.  You have to be very selective about your words to stay within the structure of the poem.  And it is usually about a very specific idea or moment.  When writing a novel, it is so easy to get lost in the moment and forget where you are going in the story until later on.  Then you have to go back and sort through the mess a hundred times to tidy it up. 

    A poem has a set structure that you must constantly be aware of during the process.  And yes, I am aware that there is such a thing as free verse poetry that does not conform to rhyming or scheme of any kind.  Even then, you must be resourceful and think of many different ways to say things before deciding on the one that works with the theme.

    Another aspect that is extremely helpful is that, in order to write a good poem, you must fail.  Many times over.  To make the most impact, you must try out word after word after word until you can settle on the most dynamic.  You must write entire lines that you find beautiful and are proud of and then cross them out because they don’t fit right.  What you learn from this is how to work through the writers’ block and come out the other side, ready to write again. 

    So if you are like me and experience writers’ block more often than you would like to admit, my advice is this: write a poem.  A sonnet, limerick, rondeau, or sestina could be exactly what you need to tone your writing muscles and become a lean, mean, writing machine. 

    Happy poeming, everyone!