Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Writing Guest Post: Are You With Me?

Jessica Iverson is currently working on her MFA in Children's Literature through Hollins University. She is particularly interested in reading and writing about diversity in children's literature.  Her short story "Tap" was recently published as part of a collection of stories to be used in Ethiopian classrooms in partnership with the Peace Corps. Her first picture book manuscript is set in China during the Moon Festival.

I’m a sucker for beginnings. I love a story’s set up, backstory and the multiple plot promises in the first pages. Even if we, the audience, aren’t fully aware of it, we are waiting for the story to establish the structure of the world we are entering into, the status quo and how it might be broken or at least challenged by the protagonist. We are also waiting to be won over. In Orson Scott Card’s book titled Characters and Viewpoints, he suggests that the reader may unconsciously ask three types of questions while digesting the story.

The first point Card makes is that the reader wants to be shown why he or she should care. Why should the reader turn the next page, rather than finally fixing lunch or dropping off the package that should have been mailed a week ago? Why does this story matter? Card’s questions is: "So what?"

Second, even on a just for fun read, the reader expects the story to be believable. What about fantasy or sci-fi, you say? There are great texts out there. Classics! Yes. I agree. But in these well done stories, rules for the worlds are set up, and if those rules fall apart, then there’s…well, fall out. You with me? Now, you are an intelligent reader, I can tell, and you wouldn’t (without squirming) put up with a book which has you internally or externally exclaiming, “but that’s not how it works!” Cough. Sparkly vampires. Cough. Card dubs this issue “Oh Yeah?”

And lastly, pay attention, you who are creating new worlds: The reader wants to feel like they get it. Did I miss something? Who is talking? Wait. The fox and Deb were just at the grocery store and now, actually I have no idea where they are (completely made up, don’t rack your brain). The reader can handle being in the dark or confused to an extent. Heck, isn’t that why the mystery genre works? But the difference there is that the confusion is being used for the betterment of the story. The author isn’t just being lazy. Card eloquently calls this question the “Huh?”. Of course, there is a fine line between making sure the reader isn’t confused and beating. them. over. the. head. with. what. you. want. them. to. know. Also, it is best to piece into the story information that you know the reader will need, in order to keep following along. Beware of the infodump. Don’t let it happen to your story!

Next week: Where To Start?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Life: Kugelhopf

One of the foods I discovered during my sojourn in Alsace along with tarte flambée was the distinctive kugelhopf (or gugelhopf or gugelhupf; there are a thousand variations).  Kugelhopf was present everywhere; in bakeries, at home, and especially at wine tastings.  The dry, not-too-sweet cake is perfect for clearing the palate between wines.  It even made an appearance at Easter in the shape of a lamb.

Kugelhopf is not difficult to make, but as it is a yeast dough it is more time consuming than other cakes, and it has a more bready texture than most American cakes.  You can use an angel food cake pan or a bundt pan to bake it but to do it properly, use a kugelhopf pan.  The kugelhopf pan is taller than a bundt pan and will give you the traditional shape.  If you have a lamb-shaped pan, you're may use that for Easter.

(serves 8-10)

2 1/4 Tbsp yeast
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c warm water
4 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c butter, softened
1 Tbsp salt
6 eggs
3/4 c raisins (plumped in water or rum)
1/2 c sliced almonds

Mix the yeast, sugar, and warm water and let sit to proof (it is proofed when it foams slightly or makes bubbles).

Beat together two cups of flour and the softened butter.  Add salt and eggs, mixing until incorporated.  Drain raisins and add.  Mix in half the almonds.

Slowly beat in the remaining flour and the yeast mixture.  Stir until you have a nice strong stretchy dough.  Move the dough to a floured bowl and let it rise until doubled, about 1 to 2 hours, then punch down.

Thoroughly grease (preferably with butter) a Kugelhopf pan or your pan of choice.  Sprinkle the remaining almonds into the bottom of the pan and add the dough.  Let rise until doubled again, about an hour.

Bake at 475 F for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 F and bake until browned, about 45 minutes.

Remove from oven and let stand three minutes in the pan, then invert onto a cooling rack.

When the cake is cooled, turn upright on a plate.  You can dust the kugelhopf with powdered sugar or drizzle it with a glaze or soak it with melted butter and sprinkle sugar on top to create a crunchy crust.

Delicious with fresh fruit and a Crémant d'Alsace!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Symbol & Revolution (Fiction in the World)

The arts have a long history as symbols of a people, culture, or way of life, a fact which is particularly visible in the face of conflict.  The forced relocation of indigenous people, especially children, in the 1800s and 1900s, saw the restriction of traditional art and music in an effort to stamp out a culture and way of life.  During World War II, national music was seen as so dangerous that it was banned in Nazi-occupied countries.  And in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Singing Revolution led to the nearly bloodless independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from the USSR.

It's not too surprising, then, to find that residents of Hong Kong, in rallying for a free democratic process, chose "Do You Hear the People Sing" as a protest song.  Les Miserables and its promotion of social justice is fairly well-known world-wide thanks to a touring musical and the recent movie, and the song is one that resonates from the barricades of Paris to the streets of Hong Kong.  Given Victor Hugo's political fight for social equality and freedom, I suspect he would approve.

More interesting is the recent adoption of the Hunger Games salute as a sign of protest in Thailand.  Again, it's not too surprising that this symbol was selected - the movie is widely popular, easily available, and offers an example of the overthrow of a repressive regime - but it is significant that an international movie has provided a symbol of resistance.  Instead of local arts providing a rallying point, protesters chose a fictional symbol from a fictional world, and in doing so they made the salute a universal sign.  It's a sign of the power of fiction and perhaps more accurately, the power of movies.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Monday Writing: My Nine Authors

Reading is the single biggest reason why I am a writer today.  I read voraciously as a child and although my pace has slowed in later years thanks to, well, life, stories were such a big part of my growing-up years that it seemed totally natural to make my own stories and then to write them down.  I don't know if I could possibly name all of the stories that influenced my developing ideas about stories and characters and the rules of fiction, but I can bang out the top nine no problem.  If you're looking for ideas for young readers or if you're curious about my style, follow along!

1. Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura was the First, i.e. the first book I remember having read to me, the first chapter book I remember reading on my own, the stories that I lived and breathed for years.  She taught me a fascination with history and showed me a descriptive style that was difficult enough to challenge a young reader but clear enough to keep said reader reading.

2. Madeleine L'Engle
I read "A Wrinkle in Time" sometime in second or third grade and was both fascinated and confused.  I suspect L'Engle was my first sci-fi experience, and after semi-historical books and fairy tales, all this business with molecules and transporters was deeply intriguing.  I looked forward to the day when I could learn higher mathematics, just like the characters in the book.  L'Engle's stories entwined family dynamics with global threats and matched internal development to external plot.

3. Victor Hugo
In sixth grade I went to the library having finished "Gone with the Wind" and looking for a similarly hefty tome.  I walked out with "Les Miserables."  It was the first book to ever make me cry (or find a deep outrage at the state of French society in the early 1800s, for that matter.)  From Hugo I learned an enjoyment for gorgeous language and I witnessed a masterful example of how to draw the reader into the stakes of the story.

4. Steven Brust
Cynical Vlad Taltos and his wise-cracking jhereg showed up in middle school under the auspices of a friend who loaned me the books.  Vlad inhabited a world of grey morality and sarcasm, and he regularly negotiated complicated relationships with friends, "friends," enemies, and lovers - perfect for a budding teenager.  He was also one of the first first-person narrators that I can remember reading.  Brust's sparse language and urban setting introduced me to one contemporary fantasy blend that I've enjoyed ever since.  Plus, he had multiple kick-ass female characters.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien
Ah, Tolkien.  Does anyone ever leave him off a list of influential authors?  I'd heard "The Hobbit" via audiobook while on a roadtrip with my family and I think I'd read it, but I wasn't aware that there was more until a middle-school friend (yes, the same as the above; she also introduced me to Star Wars and now you know where it all comes from) talked up Eowyn and handed me "The Lord of the Rings."  It was dense and it took me some time to get through, even after Hugo, but I loved every second of it - the  rich language, the incredibly detailed setting, the bittersweet ending, and probably most of all, the juxtaposition of the individual and the epic.

6. Robin McKinley
I don't remember when I started reading Robin McKinley because her introduction into my reading list was so natural it felt as though she'd always been there.  I came through her fairy retellings, particularly her two Beauty and the Beast stories, before I made it over to Aeron, but I connected with her female characters and themes of internal strength.  Her characters and their struggles felt very real.

7. Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett is still my go-to comfort read when I'm having a bad day.  I learned a lot about archetypes and the power of story and language from his books, and in terms of humor it's hard to beat Pratchett.  He always manages to look at human nature with clear eyes, and sometimes it's funny because of the truth behind the story and sometimes he's sad because of the same, but there's always hope.

8. Agatha Christie & 9. Dorothy Sayers
I have friends who will rend their garments at the fact that I've lumped these two together, but the truth is that I tore through Agatha Christie before getting into Dorothy Sayers and I found that they had much of the same things to teach me, albeit in different ways.  Mysteries are their own special brand of story, and I enjoyed following the intricacies of the plot in both authors' stories.  And I suspect my love for twists developed in some part due to both Christie and Sayers.

Which authors influenced your writing?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Life: Old-Fashioned Ginger Ale

I'm not a big drinker of soft drinks (aka soda, pop, or Coke depending on your area) but I will make exception for pizza nights, when root beer is the correctly paired beverage.  My other exception is ginger ale or, preferably, ginger beer, the more gingery the better.  Imagine my delight when I came across a recipe from my grandmother for homemade ginger ale!  This recipe is very easy to make and will last a few days.  Be sure to use a plastic bottle; do not under any circumstances use glass, as glass has been known to shatter under the pressure.

You can vary the amounts of ginger and sugar to find the right balance of sweet and gingery.  I use regular baker's yeast, but I'm told that champagne yeast gives a cleaner flavor.  I've also heard that if you make yogurt, you can use the whey as a fermenting medium and it gives a nice taste to the ginger ale.


Old-Fashioned Ginger Ale

1 lemon
2 Tb finely grated fresh ginger (must be fresh!)
1 c sugar
¼ tsp instant yeast (baker's yeast or, if you can find it, champagne yeast)
Cold tap water

Place a funnel in the mouth of  2 liter plastic bottle with a screw-on lid.  Juice the lemon and strain the juice into the bottle through the funnel.
Add the ginger, sugar, and yeast, then pour in enough water to fill the bottle.  Cap tightly.
Gently shake to release the sediment and yeast from the bottom of the bottle.  
Let the bottle sit at room temperature for 24 hours.  You’ll know the soda is done when there’s no give in the bottle.  Refrigerate, and open with care.  Good for a few days.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Art & Instagram

The rise of the selfie has been well-documented around the internet, from the initial flurry of high-angled shots at arms-length that inhabited Myspace profiles to the high-profile selfies taken at the Academy Awards or by world leaders (or, recently, by soccer players.)  For the most part, I've seen selfies dismissed as a sign of self-obsession or criticized for promoting looks above other qualities.  From poking around the internet, I've picked up a general sense that selfies, especially poorly-done selfies or selfies taken for validation of attractiveness, are deemed somewhat juvenile.

And yet their popularity endures.  And yet actors and politicians and world leaders flock to the camera when it is offered.  And yet people can't stop taking pictures of themselves.

Self-images tell us about ourselves but more than that, they allow us to control the image we offer to the world.  Selfies let us frame our own stories and offer a counter to the images that marketing and media provide, particularly for women.  But perhaps most interestingly, selfies - and other inhabitants of Instagram, food pictures and vacation pictures - line up neatly with trends in art history.  Remember self portraits?  Still lifes?  Landscapes?

The article linked above, authored by Ben Davis, explores the significance of these reoccurring themes in art.  It's a fascinating read, even if the conclusion is that we won't see the end of people's dinners any time soon.  But is it art?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Monday Writing: Seven Techniques to Defeat Procrastination

There are people in the world for whom procrastination is simply a long word and not a daily struggle.  These people lead incredibly disciplined lives in which everything is put away the moment one is done with it and all tasks are completed with time to spare, after which point the non-procrastinator gets to relax with a good book while the rest of us toil away at work we should have completed last week.  I would like to count myself among the disciplined, but alas, I am all to familiar with the siren call of procrastination via internet (research), reading (knowledge expansion), cleaning (hey, at least I'm doing something productive), or day-dreaming (brainstorming). 

At the same time, I enjoy leading a very busy life and I hate missing deadlines, so I've spent most of my life combating procrastination in one form or another.  I've also had two decades of music training which has taught me valuable lessons regarding the development of discipline that have transferred over to other areas of my life.  The tips below are things that I've found useful in keeping myself on track.  They're writer-specific, but they could probably be applied to life in general with a few tweaks.

Seven Tips To Defeat Procrastination

1. Visualize success & set small, specific goals
It sounds New Agey, but studies have shown that visualizing goals (and more importantly, imagining how you will overcome obstacles) contributes to greater success in pursuit of those goals.  Set easily attainable goals for yourself - write five hundred words, or write for an hour, or write one specific scene - and make a plan for what you will do when the usual interruptions happen.  Imagine yourself closing that internet window and getting back to work, or letting the phone go to voicemail, or waiting to look at your texts until your writing time is up.  Visualizing how you will deal with interruptions will improve your ability to actually deal with those interruptions and allow you to stay on task.  The small goals will give you quick successes that you can use to build towards a big success.

2.  Find what motivates you & use that (guilt? reward?)
My drama teacher used to keep a prop mace in her office that she jokingly called "motivation."  Find out what motivates you and use that.  Some people do well with rewards; write a certain number of words and get a chocolate, for example.  NaNoWriMo suggests telling all of your loved ones that you're writing a novel and letting their expectations drive you.  I've found that reading about other authors' success (especially this one at The Passive Voice) always makes me want to dive into writing.  Whatever gets you fired up and keep going, use it.

3. Schedule writing time
I find that the busier I am, the more things I get done, simply because the sheer number of things I have to keep up with forces me into a very tight schedule.  When I have very little time for writing, I can get an astonishing number of words out in that time.  On the flip side, when I have all day to write, it sometimes doesn't get done.  I keep thinking that I have all day, and then suddenly I don't.  Learn from me, friends.  Make a schedule for your writing time and stick to it.  Set alarms and warn your family members if you have to, but get your but in that chair when the clock hits six (or whenever.)  At first you might not get a lot done if you're not feeling particularly inspired at that time of day, but if you get in the habit of writing at a certain time every day, your brain will catch on.  Stick to it.

4. Spend some time with a disciplined person (ideally, live with them)
My roommate in college was the most disciplined person I have ever met.  She did all the little things that I always intend to do but often don't; she folded and put away her laundry as soon as it came out of the dryer, she put her clothes right in the hamper when they were dirty, she washed her dishes as soon as she was done with them, and she sat down to do her homework (or went to the music center to practice) before any leisure time.  And because we were living together, her actions began to rub off on me.  (Well, maybe not the dishes.)  I fell into the habit of doing my homework or practicing when she did, because then when we finished we could hang out and watch "Friends" together.  I put my clothes away because I didn't want to mess up her space.
Living with a disciplined person might be difficult for most people to manage, but if you have a disciplined friend, recruit their help.  Go on a weekend trip with them and follow their work/play schedule.  If you're having trouble sticking to a schedule, ask them to call you  five minutes before the time you're supposed to sit down to write or follow up with you after your writing time to see what got done.  Those expectations can play into your motivations, but it also adds some outside weight to your schedule.

5. Get rid of distractions
This should be a no brainer, but before you sit down to write, remove as many distractions as possible.  You've already figured out how you're going to respond to interruptions that do occur, so now do your best to limit whatever you can.  Unplug the internet, if you can.  Set your phone to silent.  Write facing away from the Xbox or your shelf full of books or the kitchen that needs to be cleaned.  Ask your family not to disturb you.  If you have small children, this may be challenging, but do what you can.

6. Set mini-deadlines and back them up
Mini-deadlines are the best!  Here is what you do.  Say you have a deadline in six weeks to get your short story in.  First, you move your ultimate deadline up a week - now you have five weeks to finish.  Now, break your story into five sections and give yourself a week to finish each.  I find it helpful to go further and set daily goals, because then I know how much I need to accomplish each day, and it feels great when I can get ahead.  Once you've got your goals, back them up with something external and then - this is key - put it in someone else's hands. Tell your significant other you're not allowed to play Minecraft on Saturday unless you've met your weekly goal.  Ask your friends to schedule something fun for the weekend that you can't attend unless you've met your goal.

7. Get quick feedback on each section
Writing with a co-author has really opened my eyes to the effectiveness of this technique.  She and I write in a collection of documents that we share back and forth, and we take the time to comment on each other's writing as we go.  I have found that uploading the collection and reading through positive comments gets me writing faster than anything else I've tried.  I get the rush of satisfaction from knowing someone else has enjoyed my writing plus the pressure of expectation to get more out.  The more comments there are, the more I want to write.
So, if you're brave enough, find a wordy friend or loved one and ask them to read through each section and make as many positive comments as they possibly can.  Tell them not to worry about critiquing or editing; this is just to keep you moving forward.  Look through the comments right before you start writing and then get going; your friend wants the next part!