Thirty-day Writing Jumpstart: Applying fandom’s lessons to a writing career

To outsiders, fandom looks like a scary place full of screaming teenagers and basement-dwelling geeks in strange costumes, but that’s only because mainstream “news” services don’t know a damn thing about actual investigative journalism. Showing the “crazies” outside San Diego Comic-Con makes as a two-minute fluff piece doesn’t even scratch the surface about fandom.

Fandom is creativity. Passion. Collaboration. Shared joy. New experiences. Acceptances. (True, there’s also bullying, exclusion, sexual harassment, etc., but that happens any time you get more than one person in a room. We don’t let that stop us.)

How does this apply to you, as a writer? Look up one paragraph. Fandom is creativity. And because fans encourage other fans to write, draw, create costumes, and generally be creative, fandom has developed lots of great tools to spark creativity.

Enter the thirty-day writing challenge.

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Queer “Defy the Label” Brownies: a dessert that you’ll love

We live in a world of labels and acronyms. LGBT,  LGBTI, LGBTIA, QUILTBAG, and more. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, asexual. And let’s not forget pansexual, trans, genderqueer, gray-asexual, demi-asexual, aromantic, nonbinary, and so much more. Sometimes, figuring out where you fall on all these multi-dimensional spectrums can leave you confused and insecure.

Maple Sugar BrowniesThese brownies can’t fix that, but they are delicious, so that helps. Plus, they defy labels! They’re not quite blondies and not quite brownies. But, again, they are delicious.

The recipe is originally from King Arthur Flour’s Sift magazine, with modifications.

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Homemade bagels

BagelsI’m a New Yorker at heart. Living in Arizona these past 20+ years means I’m always on the lookout for good bagels, but I haven’t found a single one. So, I set about making my own.

The bagels shown here came from the King Arthur Flour recipe for baby bagels. The recipe calls for two unusual ingredients that you probably don’t have in your pantry: high-gluten flour (their brand is Sir Lancelot) and non-diastatic malt powder, which apparently is made from whole wheat grains using an ancient alchemical process. If you don’t have an alchemy lab, you can also buy it from King Arthur. Supposedly, you can make this with all-purpose flour instead of high-gluten and brown sugar instead of malt powder.

I followed the recipe exactly for the first batch (shown on the left, above) and modified it for the second batch. I’ve got further modifications to make, outlined below:

Note: I made this in a Kitchen-Aid mixer with a dough hook. King Arthur Flour’s website has all sorts of warning about doing this by hand.

Stuff

  • Kitchen-Aid stand mixer with dough hook
  • Large skillet
  • Two baking sheets
  • Parchment paper (the Best Stuff EVER)
  • Slotted spatula
  • Wire cooling rack

Starter

  • 124 grams (1 cup) high gluten flour.
  • 113 grams (1/2 cup) water
  • 1/16 tsp instant yeast

Dough

  • starter
  • 227 g (1 cup) warm water
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 436 grams (3 1/2 cups) high gluten flour
  • 11 grams non-diastatic malt powder plus 11 grams (1 tbsp) for the water bath
  • 1 1/2 tsp instant yeast
  • Toppings, if desired (sesame or poppy seeds, kosher salt, cinnamon sugar, etc.)

Process

  1. Make the starter a day or two before you want to eat these. Mix all starter ingredients, then cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature overnight. The starter will first look more like dough, but it’ll soften, expand, and get bubbly by morning. If it doesn’t turn bubbly, your yeast is dead. Go buy more instant yeast and keep it in the fridge!
  2. Mix the dry ingredients for the dough — the salt, flour, malt powder, and yeast.
  3. Add the starter and warm water to the dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Knead the dough until it’s smooth, about 6-7 minutes. The dough will be heavy, just slightly sticky, and very stiff.
  5. Cover the dough and let it rise for 90 minutes.
  6. After the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. (The original recipe calls for 425, but this burnt the bottoms of the bagels.)
  7. In a nonstick pan, heat water and add a tablespoon of malt powder. Occasionally stir to mix in the malt powder, though it won’t entirely dissolve.
  8. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  9. Gently deflate the dough by pushing down on it with your fingertips. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions. I did this by weighing the dough, dividing the weight by twelve, then weighing out each individual piece.
  10. Working quickly, roll each piece into a ball, keeping the balls lightly covered with plastic wrap.
  11. Shape each ball into a bagel by poking your finger through, then spinning it to expand the hole to about 1 1/2″. The holes will close up, to some extent, but that’s okay. Note: At this point, you can cover the bagels with plastic wrap and put them in the fridge. That way, you can have hot bagels for breakfast tomorrow morning!
  12. Boil the bagels on each side for 15 seconds. I was able to fit three bagels into a huge skillet (it’s something like 15 inches across). Don’t crowd the bagels. Use the spatula to flip them gently, being careful not to splash yourself.
  13. Rest the bagels on the wire cooling rack to let them dry a little bit before transferring them to the parchment-lined baking sheet.
  14. By the time all twelve bagels have been boiled, your oven should be ready. Bake the bagels for 15 minutes. Then check them once every couple of minutes. You want them crusty and light golden brown, but not burnt on the bottom, because burnt bagels are sad.

If only they would TALK…

That seems to be a theme in my writing, both solo and with Ray Van Fox. In fact, one of our beta readers just wrote a comment in a new book we’re writing:

I would like to point out that if Character A had mentioned at any point, “Hey, I don’t sleep well around strangers, which is why I didn’t want to stay at your apartment, but I don’t think you’d bother me,” THIS WHOLE NIGHT WOULD BE SO MUCH LESS AWKWARD. Bonus if he threw in “Hey, I’m glad we’re still friends, but if you’re interested in being more, I’m open to that.”

The problem is, Character A wouldn’t say either of those things. He’s just out of the Air Force and barely beginning to cope with the hyperawareness from his PTSD, and he’s had a grand total of one relationship with another guy — and in that one, the other guy was the one who made the first move. Yes, he’s completely comfortable around Character B, who’s a childhood friend (reunited after 15 years apart), but he’s not comfortable with himself.

When we’re not comfortable with who we are, either because we don’t like ourselves or simply because we don’t know ourselves, it’s hard to talk openly and honestly. Realistically, it wasn’t until chapter 3 that Character A was ready to to say, “I’m having a lot of difficulty coming to grips with some things that happened to me in the Air Force, and I’m not comfortable around strangers, especially when I’m sleeping and vulnerable.” Not to imply that he said it so openly. He hinted and poked at the edges of the idea, and eventually he got the point across, after a whole lot of awkwardness.

And he’s certainly not ready to say, “Hey, I’m struggling with my sexuality, and I’m scared that if I confess how attracted to you I am, I’ll ruin our friendship.” That’s going to take chapters, unless something extraordinary happens. (And Character B is having this exact same struggle.)

I’ve seen a few critiques on romance writing blogs that this is a bad idea, but I have to disagree. While the world might run more smoothly if we had 100% full disclosure everywhere, that’s not how it works. People conceal things from themselves and from other people.

This is especially important when coming to grips with being queer is a big part of the story. These characters aren’t concealing information for the sake of furthering the plot. They’re barely ready to face these facts themselves, much less discuss them with others.

And that is the plot, or at least a big part of it. Through the rest of the book, these characters will mature and grow. Will Character A get to the point where he can talk honestly with Character B about his sexuality and PTSD? I hope so, but we’ll have to see. But I can guarantee that he’ll reach a point where he at least understand who he is.

ETA: I know the beta reader meant this humorously and not as actual criticism, and that we’ve made it clear in our writing (I hope!) that the characters aren’t talking because it would be out of character for them to do so. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of her feedback!

Realism in dialog: The hateful things we say

People aren’t always nice, kind, or respectful — even the people who love us. We’re careless with our words. We react emotionally, blurting out whatever comes to mind rather than taking a moment to think about the impact of what we have to say.

If I were crazy, where would I have put that? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. What is your major malfunction? Can’t you read? Are you an idiot? What’s so hard about this? Why can’t you follow instructions?

In the real world, everyone reacts differently to hearing things like this. Some people can forget them. Others remember those words for years. They’re almost never followed by an apology. Usually, the speaker forgets saying them at all. Try to bring them up later, and you’ll be accused of mishearing or flat-out making things up.

Miscommunication happens. Cruelty happens. Insults happen. And realism in writing is good, right? So why not write those things in?

The problem is, when someone is reading dialog — when those words are on the page right in front of you — the specific words stick with the reader. Even if the dialog is meant to be spoken outside the other person’s hearing, they can’t be un-read. It’s damned hard to forgive a hero or heroine who says something so rude or disrespectful under any circumstance.

One of my readers once told me that, when reading a romance, they wanted the love interests to be kind and respectful to one another. It’s hard to fit cruelty, no matter how realistic, into that sort of respect.

This can be done in a hate-turns-to-love romance, but it requires a careful touch. Otherwise, the reader’s never going to believe that Love Interest #1 would forgive Love Interest #2 for all the crappy things they said three chapters ago.

And these types of lines can certainly appear in a fight scene, when tempers are high, but they’ve always got to be followed up with an apology or reconciliation. Pretending “it never happened” might work in real life (protip: it doesn’t) but it usually won’t work on a reader, no matter how you twist and contort to make the characters accept it.

In any other romance trope — especially if the hateful things are coming after the relationship is established — it’s even harder to include insulting dialog without breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief or making the reader hate the characters and ask, “Why are these two even together?”

In writing, how much realism is too much?

A few months ago, Ray Van Fox and I wrote a story that we set at the fictional campus of SUNY Huntington. The SUNY — State University of New York — system has plenty of schools throughout the state, any one of which could’ve suited our purposes. Today, we got reader feedback asking us why we’d chosen to set our story at a fictional campus instead of a real university.

So why set our story at a fictional campus instead of a real one? One word: verisimilitude.

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Paperback, hardcover, or ebooks?

I saw this question floating around on Facebook, and it got me curious. How do you prefer to do your reading? Paperbacks, hardcovers, or ebooks?

I used to be all about a good mix of paperbacks and hardcovers. If there was a book, an author, or a series I really enjoyed, I’d re-buy the book in hardcover just to have it in my collection. I always had one or two paperbacks in arm’s reach, and even though I don’t carry a purse, I always had a book in my hand, in my lunch bag, or in my coat pocket. (Back when I wore coats, that is, pre-Arizona.)

When my husband and I moved in together, I went through our shared book collection and found a good percentage of our books were duplicates — which just goes to show that you marry the person who matches your reading habits!

But I’ve been typing for thirty-plus years now, and I’m at a point where holding up a paperback can be a strain on my wrists if I’ve been writing all day. Let’s not talk about hardcovers — especially not, for example, the Tom Clancy omnibus of Cardinal of the Kremlin/Red Storm Rising that I used to own. I’m pretty sure I could’ve used that book to stop bullets, it was so big and heavy.

The husband was an early adopter of ebooks. Skeptical as I was, when he bought me a Kindle for my birthday that first year, I tried it.

It was love at first sight.

Now, I have multiple Kindles: a Paperwhite that doesn’t work (GRR), two Kindle Keyboards that I use for editing my books, and a Kindle Fire that I use for recipes (though most of them should read “1. Get food. 2. Light on fire. 3. Order pizza.)

As much as I love the sight of a library or the tactile experience of turning pages, ebooks have stolen my heart — and my wrists. What’s your preferred reading method?

On Writing Confrontation

Writing confrontation is tough. We want people to get along. We want things to be nice and happy. We see, with the omniscience of the writer, why people should get along.

The trick is to completely immerse yourself in each character. Write slowly. With every word and gesture, each change in tone of voice, think about what that character would feel and think and know at that very instant.

In my Natural Dialog class, I teach that good dialog is like a trail of footprints in the sand. Each footprint naturally leads to the next. The path isn’t a straight line; it meanders, twisting around obstacles, diverting away from threats or towards pretty views. And the pace isn’t a marching rhythm; it moves slowly, lingering in good moments, and breaks into a run when things are exciting or stressed.

Think of a confrontation like that. Don’t write the whole damn thing at once. Write each individual line, and ask yourself “How would the other character respond?”

Plus, remember that you’ve chosen a point of view character*. Share with the reader what that POV character is thinking and feeling. Show how they’re interpreting the other character’s tone and body language.

Make it real, which means having them make mistakes, too. Let them misinterpret motivations. Let them mishear words. Give them misunderstandings.

And when the energy rises, have them interrupt one another, whether it’s “You’re WRONG!” or “I’m done! Walking away now!” or “Are you too blind to see the obvious?” or whatever.

And don’t resolve it too quickly. If the confrontation is important enough to write, it’s important enough to take your time and write it well.

My advice to an aspiring writer

I posted this to Wattpad a few days ago, and finally real life had calmed down enough that I remembered to post it here, too.

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Read. Read in your chosen genre and outside it. Try to find what works and what doesn’t work in every book you read.

Write. Write absolute crap that you never intend to show anyone else. Rewrite it so it’s a little bit better. Rewrite it again. Learn to love rewriting.

Delete. Don’t be scared to delete 50,000 words if it’s not going where you want it to go. Nothing you write is ever wasted. Every single word you write makes you a better writer, because it’s been a learning experience.

Learn. Learn grammar inside and out. Get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Guide, or another style guide and read it. Learn how to structure sentences, how to use commas, when to use semicolons, and so on. You can’t break the rules until you know the rules.

Persist. I’ve been writing stories since I was a child. I’m going to be 44 in a month, and I just published my first book this past July. I constantly let myself get sidetracked with work and other projects, and I was always too much of a coward to submit a manuscript to the slush pile, but I never stopped writing.

I just got the phone call that authors love

No, not the one from a publisher offering me a great contract. This one was from a reader.

I have a great relationship with the veterinarian’s office over at the local Air Force base. They’re professional and friendly, and they’ve kept me sane through unexpected seizures, attempts at faking death (thanks, cat!), and all the usual crises that come with having pets. So when I had some extra copies of my first book, The Longest Night, I brought them over and handed them out.

My vet just called to say that he loved it. “I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it, and I thought about not even saying that, but I really did. When’s your next book coming out? Where can I buy it?”

Talk about a great way to brighten an author’s day!