Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday Writing: The Three Things I Learned About Pitches From #PitMad

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of stumbling across #PitMad on Twitter. #PitMad, developed by Brenda Drake to bring agents and authors together, is a twelve-hour pitch party on Twitter wherein agents will show up to read authors' tweeted pitches.  (Ms. Drake is also responsible for Pitch Wars and Pitch Madness, which you can read about on her website.)  It's a great opportunity to get your work out there, but from an observer's perspective, it was an awesome crash course in effective pitches.

I am not an editor, but from a reader's perspective it was fascinating to go through pitches and see what was appealing and what wasn't.  Here are the three things I learned from reading pitches in #PitMad:

1. Be Specific
I can't even begin to tell you how many pitches I saw that went along the lines of: "A vampire. A werewolf. A forbidden love" or "A dark secret. An empire in danger. And only one girl can save the day." Congratulations, you've just described every paranormal or fantasy novel in existence. Don't be vague!  Tell me what, specifically, is unique about your story.  How is your vampire/werewolf love story different from all the others?  Does it have an interesting setting?  A twist in the stakes?

2. Be Direct
140 characters does not give you a lot of space, and after you've added the requisite #PitMad and your category - let's say #SFF - and the spaces for both you're down to a maximum 127 characters.  (And you thought just summarizing your story was hard!)  This is your opportunity to pare your store down to the absolute fundamentals.  What is your story about, and what makes it unique?  Don't worry about extraneous stuff - the villain's name or the complex inner politics of the society.  Just give me the heart of your story.  (If you're having trouble with this, I recommend trying to figure out what you would say to a friend if you wanted them to read your story, and then polish from there.)

3. Hook Me
You MUST include the stakes.  This can go hand in hand with specifying what is unique about your story - maybe the werewolf is pregnant and she's going to be cast out of her society if she and the vampire don't figure something out.  Maybe they both fled their societies together and now they're being hunted by the humans they used to happily snack on.  Your reader needs something to care about, so make sure to include what is at risk.

The next #PitMad is December 4.  Get those pitches polished!

(To see a list of successful pitches, check out Carissa Taylor's website.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Life: Clafoutis aux Prunes

I recently happened to find in my possession two bags of the loveliest plump plums you have ever seen.  After scarfing down most of a bag, I recalled that while in France I had been served a kind of custardy dish with plums set into it.  The dish, as it turns out, was clafoutis and it can be made will all kinds of fruit.  It is delicious for breakfast, dessert, tea, and snacks throughout the day, and dead simple to make. The preparation process is very similar to making crêpes and the result is equally tasty.

Clafoutis aux Prunes

-ripe plums, halved and pitted and sprinkled with sugar (freestone is best - I used Prune plums)
-1 1/4 c milk
-3 eggs
-2 tsp vanilla extract
-up to 1/3 c sugar (you can use less for a less sweet dish; I use around 1/4 c)
-1/8 tsp salt
-1/2 c flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Mix together dry ingredients (sugar, salt, flour).  In a separate bowl, beat eggs, then mix in vanilla and milk.

Slowly add liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients.  This is the same process as with crêpes - add a little liquid to the dry and mix thoroughly, then add a little more and repeat.  This will avoid lumps.  You can use a whisk or a fork - I use a fork.

Liberally butter a baking dish or pie pan about 1 1/2 inches deep.  (I use a Le Creuset skillet.)  Pour in just enough batter to cover the bottom, then set in the heated oven for about five minutes or until some of the batter has set.  Remove and add plums with the cut side down.

Pour the rest of the batter over the plums and return the dish to the oven (middle rack).  Bake for fifty minutes, or until the eggs are puffed and browned and a toothpick set in the center comes out clean.

Bon appétit!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Rebooting Doctor Who


I will freely confess that I am late to the party that is Doctor Who.  I started with the Ninth Doctor and have watched little to none of the prior Doctors, preferring instead to move forward in the chronology with Ten, Eleven, War, and Twelve.  It was fascinating, then, to read about the past Doctors and find that before the reboot, Time Lords were all over the place and Gallifrey was firmly in place.

One of the advantages of a reboot is the ability to redefine an old character for modern audiences.  Sometimes, as with Batman, it works; other times, as with The Pink Panther, it really doesn't.  For the Doctor, the writers pulled the show away from its roots as a light educational show for families to create something darker and grittier, albeit with a solid streak of whimsey, and that combination of intensity and lightness worked.  In one bold stroke, by giving the Doctor a recent past in which he destroyed his entire planet and race, the writers managed to elevate the Doctor (a superbeing is less impressive when surrounded by other equally powerful superbeings) and isolate him, driving his need for human companions and opening him up for audience connection through his loneliness.

That fact of the Doctor's past - his destruction of his own homeworld and his isolation as the last of his kind - provided an opportunity for his various incarnations to distinguish themselves by their reactions to it.  The Ninth Doctor can be compassionate, but he has a wealth of anger and guilt beneath that can drive him to cruelty.  And he is initially standoffish, as self-protection and protection for those around him.  Ten, by comparison, is bright and open and in love with humanity, and while he can blaze with terrible anger when needed his undercurrent is more one of sadness than fury.  When he lets his guard down it's the grief that shows.  Eleven, by contrast, embraces solid denial.  He maintains the quirkiness and lightness of Ten, but he refuses to face the reality of his actions and that frequently makes him dangerous to any of the little people around him.

It was disappointing, then, to have that bit of terrible past retconned altogether in "The Day of the Doctor."  There was a lot I enjoyed about the movie - the return of Tennant and Piper, the introduction of Hurt, the interaction between all three Doctors and the opportunity to observe the differences in the incarnations, the shout-outs to past episodes - but the result, in which the Doctor didn't make the choice that would go on to define his character, was a let-down.

And that's the funny thing about fiction - sometimes, the worst choice can be the best for the character and the story.  The Doctor's original choice to destroy his homeworld and two races to end a war that was threatening to tear the universe apart gave us a different perspective on the normally benign Doctor and how far he was willing to go to ensure peace.  It informed reactions of later incarnations and invited questions into the nature of good and evil, the Doctor's morality, and the audience's complicity in loving and defending a character that committed genocide on a massive scale.  It's a complex and difficult issue, and it gives a sense of depth to the character.

Of course, that depth is entirely lost when the choice is retconned out of existence, as it was in "The Day of the Doctor" and worse, it retroactively affects the Doctor's incarnations and their reactions to the choice.  Suddenly it's harder to care about his anger, grief, or denial - all the qualities that made him relatable and human - because the event that was felt so deeply no longer exists.

I can understand the temptation to save Gallifrey, to give the Doctor something to pursue and, from a writer's perspective, set up a long plot arc around the resurrection of Gallifrey and the Time Lords.  I can even see the desire to redeem the Doctor by lifting the terrible weight of his guilt and, from a character standpoint, making him a little less of the villain.  But it is that guilt and that darkness that make the character interesting; it's the awful choice that he made and the coping mechanisms he finds for it that make the the show so compelling.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday Guest Post: Nonfiction and the News

Today I am delighted to bring you a guest post from my go-to guy for history and current affairs, Alex Peterson.  Alex is a born and bred Seattlite, an educator, and has forgotten more about political systems than I ever learned in school.

About a month ago I sat down for coffee with a friend who asked me what was going on in the world. I then took the next 15 minutes to explain the ongoing civil war in the Ukraine, its possibility of escalation into nuclear war, the intricacies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Central Asian geopolitics and possible impacts to resource pricing in Asia manufacturing before her eyes, like yours now (I suspect), glazed over. Oh shucks, I thought, I have at least two more hours of possible topics I could link to these events. And we hadn’t even touched on the recent news over cyberespionage and how it affects the Baltic Republics!

She asked me to tell her about the world because I am an informed citizen. I spend one to two hours daily reading at least one complete newspaper plus twenty-fifty articles from a wide range viewpoints (the Drudge Report to Haaretz, Al Jazeera to Xinhua). More than for the pleasure of periodically lecturing friends over currency rates fluctuations I read nonfiction because it fosters empathy for the human condition and is as fun as watching a show like Homeland or Scandal.

Hang on, hang on, before you roll your eyes and leave, consider France! France has been fighting terrorists in Africa, but has inadvertently been financing Al-Qaeda for years. French President Francois Hollande has fired two sets of his closest advisors in six months after they publicly called him stupid. Seven years ago he abandoned Segolene Royale, his long-term lover and mother of his children the day after she lost the presidential election. To an opponent (nicknamed “Sarko”) who is being investigated for financing his campaign by swindling a rich older woman and taking money from foreign dictators. President Holland ran against Sarko and won five years later, this time with a new girlfriend. He was caught cheating on the new girlfriend, the unofficial Mistress of France (who lived with him in a palace), by papers who analyzed his patent leather shoes as he was driven to their love nest on the back of a moped. The Mistress of France was so shocked that she was hospitalized for a week. And three months after that he appointed Ms. Royale to be the secretary of Ecology. I wait every day to find “Olivia Pope & Associates” to be mentioned in the newspaper as I read about the whole mess.

Besides the drama, the comedy, the… weirdness you can find in reading non-fiction, it (especially the news) engenders a sense of understanding and empathy for other humans. My best experiences in life have been the result of this empathy. I spent ninety minutes talking with an elderly Vietnamese man exploring the meaning of life and spirituality because I could bond with him over the impact of communism and colonialism in his homeland. That experience motivated me to volunteer my time to my community. Years later, through understanding the intricacies of the complex war in Democratic Republic of the Congo, I could connect to one of my student’s experiences in a refugee camp and the fruits of her previous educational situation. This in turn helped me through a difficult period in my career. These experiences are the result of reading non-fiction. So after you read Ms. Diamond’s latest work of staggering genius, try reading the news or pick up a magazine. It can change your life.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Friday Life: Special Occasion Raspberry Chocolate Genoise (part 3)

Today's post wraps up the recipe for the Raspberry Chocolate Genoise.  You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

With your cake layers prepped, now you have options!  You will need something to hold the two layers together and provide a little burst of flavor.  The recipe calls for a combination of chocolate ganache, whipped cream, and raspberries, but you can play around with that however you like.  My most recent creation featured a layer of chocolate ganache, a layer of crushed raspberries (no sugar), and a layer of plain whipped cream.  You can if you prefer fold the ganache into the whipped cream but I wouldn't leave out the unsweetened raspberries; they provide a much needed balance to all the richness and sugar you're adding.

Chocolate Ganache
1/4 c chocolate
1/4 c cream

While the cream is heating over medium-low heat, chop the chocolate very finely.  Add the chocolate to the hot cream and stir.  Use immediately.  (For more on ganache, check out The Kitchn.)

Whipped Cream
1 pint whipping cream
2 tsp vanilla
2-4 tsp confectioner's (powdered) sugar

No, you may not use whipped cream from a can!  That would be a travesty with such a cake.
Pour the cream into a chilled bowl with the vanilla and sugar.  Beat or whisk until it forms soft peaks.

2 cups raspberries

Pour the raspberries into a large bowl and crush with the back of a spoon.  All of the raspberries should be smashed, but not pressed into jelly.

Working quickly, spoon the ganache over the bottom layer of the cake.  (It's ok if it drips down the side a bit.)  Let cool, then spread the raspberries over top and finish with a layer of whipped cream. (You will use half, or slightly less than half.)

Place the top layer gently on the whipped cream.

Chocolate Wrap
Waxed paper
1 c chopped chocolate

Cut a strip of waxed paper about 1/2 inch taller than the cake and as long as the circumference of the cake plus about three inches.  Melt the chocolate in the microwave or over the stove, then quickly pour the chocolate down the middle of the paper and spread with a knife, leaving about two inches space at either end and 1/4 inch space at the top.  Be sure to spread all the way to the bottom.

Then, with some help from a friend, lift the strip of chocolate-covered paper up and wrap it around the cake (chocolate side pressed against the cake.)  Where the ends overlap, get the chocolate together as close as possible.  You will get chocolate everywhere - this is part of the fun.

Refrigerate the cake with the paper on for 2-3 hours, or until the chocolate is firmly set.  Then you can very carefully peel off the paper.

Decorate with raspberries, ganache, and the remaining whipped cream as you see fit!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Belle

I first heard about "Belle" a little under a year ago, when I was browsing the blog People of Color in European Art History.  It's a fantastic blog, and I highly recommend checking it out.

The movie itself was no great work of staggering genius, but as a historical drama it was a solid piece.  It had all the right trappings - gorgeous costumes, sweeping landscape shots, atmospheric shots of nothing in particular, delightfully antiquated social structures, a suitably despicable villain, and an entirely sympathetic heroine.  There is a splendid awkward proposal scene, and if I found Belle to be rather one-note at times, there were some very moving moments (when the portrait was unveiled and when the decision was rendered) that make up for that.  The romantic relationship is also built up well, and I was surprised to find that much of the history was relatively accurate (if enhanced somewhat for the film.)  I will admit that I found Belle at times to be a bit milquetoast, given the lively nature of her portrait, but it's true that she was further hemmed in by both her color and her position than, say, Elizabeth Bennett.

All the same, if you enjoy Austen you will likely enjoy "Belle" and the film brings a much-needed new perspective to society and changing mores in European history.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

Happy Labor Day, everyone!  Regular posting will resume Wednesday.