Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cooking Advice: Never Abandon Ship

I love to cook.  I used to cook professionally, but that was years ago.  These days I enjoy preparing excellent food for my family and friends, which is better than cooking professionally because now I get to eat my cooking.  Seriously…I used to work in a restaurant all night and after feeding hundreds of people delicious dishes like chicken cordon bleu, seafood fettuccini, sole Oscar, ribs, and beer-battered fish, I had to clean the kitchen and it would be way past midnight by the time I got off work.  My meal options would be along the lines of Rally’s, Taco Bell, or White Castle.

Cooking isn’t that hard, though these days many people fear the kitchen almost as much as public speaking (NOTE: On the grand list of stuff people fear, public speaking outranks death.  Just an FYI.)  But cooking shouldn’t be that frightening.  There is some work involved, mostly in post-meal cleaning, but cooking is very rewarding, and it’s quite easy to prepare a meal that is way better than your typical restaurant fare.

There is one common mistake that many aspiring home cooks make, though, and it is easily avoided: leaving the kitchen.  Sure, there are times when you have hours of free time when cooking.  If you are making bread, dough takes a couple hours to rise; feel free to run some errands.  A good pot roast takes 3-4 hours.  Read a book, do some chores.  But for the most part, the leading culprit for burnt food is abandoning the kitchen to multi-task (NOTE: They aren’t burnt, mom, your cookies always look like this!).  Resist the temptation.

Sure, you have stuff that needs to get done.  A floor will not clean itself, nor will clothes, pets, or children.  But even if you have a timer set, you run a risk of burnt food if you leave the kitchen to multi-task.  Here’s what happens: the timer goes off but you don’t hear it over the vacuum (NOTE: I never have this problem, not because I don’t leave the kitchen, but because I don’t vacuum.  See how easy this is?); or you are in the middle of transferring clothes from the washer to the dryer when you hear the timer and you want to finish what you are doing…Then you decide that the empty washing machine cannot remain in that state with the massive pile of yet-to-be-washed laundry next to you, so you start a new load.  Then you smell something coming from the kitchen, or you hear the emergency back-up timer (i.e., the smoke alarm), at which point it’s too late.  

So how do you force yourself to stay at your post?  Simple: find a way to make it enjoyable.  I like to listen to music and have a drink.  Cooking and wine go hand-in-hand.  Or bottle-in-hand, really.   (NOTE: This is not applicable to breakfast, except on Christmas morning, in which case Mamosas are required).  Make use of down time while something is in the oven or sizzling on the stove to set the table, wipe down the counters, or empty / load the dishwasher, or browse a recipe book for new meal ideas.  Just keep your focus in the kitchen.

Stay tuned, future cooking advice posts will include:

Kitchen Safety
The Hardest Part of Cooking: Prep Work
Planning a Meal
Planning a Weekly Menu
My Favorite Recipes

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Origins of My Writing

I’m proud to participate in the Origins Blogfest started by Alex J. Cavenaugh, DL Hammons, Matthew McNish, and Katie Mills. Check out the links at the bottom of the post for other writers’ origin stories…

My love of writing started with an early love of reading.  I was never shy to curl up with a book.  In the early days, Dr. Seuss dominated my reading list.  I remember my third grade teacher showing me a shelf in the school library filled with tall tales, and I quickly plowed through them all.  In fourth grade I discovered Judy Blume and she became a staple in later years, along with the likes of Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, Beverly Cleary, John D. Fitzgerald (The Great Brain books), and the guy who wrote Encyclopedia Brown books.  I would even grab actual encyclopedia volumes and read things at random, because I am, and have always been, a nerd. (NOTE TO MY WIFE: Sorry to have to reveal this to you now, after nearly thirteen years of marriage.  Love you!)

Around fifth or sixth grade, my mom took me to my dad’s new office for a surprise visit, but he wasn’t there at the time.  It was a nice office, closer to the house than his old one, but being new his digs were not yet fully furnished.  I left him a note saying we had stopped by and complimenting him on the lack of chairs, saying something along the lines of “Are you going to play Santa Claus and have people sit on your lap?” 

Around that time, one of my friends was taking drawing lessons, and I was interested in them, too.  I asked my mom if I could sign up.  One day I overheard her phone the phone with someone saying, “Ricky has been asking me to put him in art lessons, but it’s his writing I’m impressed with…”  I found that interesting because I had never given writing a second thought.  Actually, I'm not sure I even gave it a first thought.  But then...

In seventh grade I took to writing short stories.  They were usually horror stories, written in an attempt to gross out my friends.  (NOTE: They did.)  When I was a sophomore in high school I bought an electric bass.  My brother Dave gave me his guitar, and after that my writing took the form of song lyrics.  Eventually I ended up with a job that involved copious amounts of writing (business proposals, marketing copy) and when I got married and had my first child I discovered that I could be a smart-ass in a blog.  That was truly a defining moment.

Things took a more serious turn around 2002, when my wife and I had rented a cabin for a weekend getaway.  We were walking through the woods when I went out on a limb and told her I was thinking about writing a novel.  I told her the premise, and expecting laughter and a plea for stability in my day job, she surprised me by enthusiastically encouraging me to go for it.  When we got back to the cabin, I sat down with the guest book (a blank notebook on the coffee table) and jotted down a two-page summary for what would be my first novel.  When we returned home I started the manuscript proper.

And that’s where this story of the origins of my writing ends, mainly because I’ve already posted about my path to publication and I’m too lazy to rehash it.

But before I sign off for today, I would like to point out that, speaking of origins, my first published novel is an origins story in its own right.  If you haven’t read “The Man in the Cinder Clouds”  please buy a copy and get cracking!  If you have read it, please recommend it to someone…Every voice counts.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing Advice: Building Suspense

So far I'm doing great on my New Year's Resolution to blog less. (NOTE: That was not really my New Year's Resolution, I just like to feel a sense of accomplishment.  This blog is half-full.)

Today I'm going to dispense a bit of writing advice. I'm helping a writer-friend with a manuscript critique.  It's one of the best ways to hone your craft, and if you are a writer and don't actively seek out works to critique, you will gain a better understanding of what works and what doesn't, which will make your own writing stronger.  It's also a kind, helpful thing to do for a fellow writer, and at some point you will have several people critique your own work (NOTE: If you are a writer, this is not optional) so you need to get in the game.

One aspect of storytelling that many writers strive for is suspense.  It's a key element to a good page-turner...Regardless of genre, some degree of suspense drives the reader's desire to see what happens next.

But sometimes writers think they are being suspenseful when in reality they are being unclear.  My protagonist doesn't know what's going on, so I'm going to make this scene very vague so the reader can feel that confusion, too!  The readers will feel like they are a part of the story!  This will all make sense in the end!  There is a problem with this.  A confused character can be a good thing.  A confused reader is not.  The issue is that if a story doesn't make sense early on, the reader may never get to the end.

You don't need to telegraph every twist and turn of the plot and give away spoilers in chapter one.  Suspense doesn't work like that.  You do need to keep the reader fully informed about two things:

- What just happened
- What is happening now

Your reader may not need to know why something happened, but the reader should not have to question what just happened.  Without that basic level of clarity, the suspense dissipates and the reader utters "WTF?" faster than an agent form-rejecting the manuscript you spent the last twelve years polishing.

Sometimes a writer will withhold information in effort to be suspenseful, but suspense doesn't come from a lack of information.  It's the exact opposite, really: Suspense is a treat served as a bit of extra information.  Little nuggets that build on each other, like Lego pieces snapping together.  We are clear on the information we received...we understand the shape, size, and color of the Lego piece, even though we may not know what is being built.  When we get the next piece, we know how it snaps into place.  Really good suspense will make us turn the pages faster so we can see the what the completed structure will look like.

That's all for now.  Next up: Cooking Advice.