Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wednesday Culture: YA Dystopia and The Giver

In seventh grade I switched schools and was promptly placed into the wrong language arts class for the last two-hour period of the day.  The school remedied this by letting me attend the second hour of the advanced language arts class.  Since the lower class had quiet reading time during the first hour and the upper class had quiet reading time during the second hour, I frequently got two solid hours of reading in at the end of the school day.  As a result, I cannot diagram a sentence, but I have read many wonderful books.

The reason I mention this is that the lower class was studying "The Giver," a book which I nearly memorized before the school moved me to the appropriate class, and since then I have had a soft place in my heart for that book.  It's one of my favorite YA dystopia stories for several reasons: the society is structured in an interesting way, designed to appeal to teenagers trying to figure out who and what they'll be (where would you be assigned?); the dystopia emerges gradually, as Jonas figures out the truth; and events aren't melodramatized.  Jonas experiences some seriously gut-wrenching moments was he's learning the truth about this society and discovers that he can no longer trust his friends and family, but there aren't really any villains out to get him.  There's no malice behind the danger, and indeed, there's a sense that Jonas could have followed in his predecessor's footsteps and lived out a long and peaceful life in the community.

The advantage of this approach is that it eases up on the "us vs. them" mentality that is central to so many YA dystopias.  It's a mentality that is appealing to teenagers, particularly in a sense of young people challenging an older authority because in the midst of the adolescent struggle for independence and self-identity, it's easy to idealize a character that breaks free of adult control.  But one of the great things about "The Giver" is that it invites the reader to pose the question of whether rebellion is a good idea, and how it will harm the people left behind.  What has this society sacrificed to be peaceful and painless?  Is that sacrifice worth it?  What harm will Jonas do when he leaves, and is he right to make the decision to do so?

And that, I suppose, is what I really like about "The Giver" - that it makes you think.  I feel sometimes that YA, particularly YA dystopia and sci-fi, has lost its way a little in providing all flash without substance, and trailers for the recent movie of "The Giver" make me fear that this story has been  stripped of the ambiguity that made it great.

Have you seen "The Giver?"  What did you think?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Monday Writing: Getting To Know Your Characters

I enjoy many things about the writing process - building a world, structuring a satisfying arc, getting into the flow of the plot - but one of my favorite parts of writing is creating a new character.  Sometimes I'll throw a new character in to fill a void, and they'll surprise me by suddenly developing a strong personality and voice of their own.  Sometimes the character is more carefully crafted, with a fleshed-out backstory and complex morality.

There are a lot of exercises out there designed to help you get to know your new characters but honestly I've never had much luck with them.  I have, in writing classes of the past, filled out long questionnaires about what my character had for breakfast or what she considers her favorite color, and emerged at the end with no better picture of who she was.  Over time, I've found that I learn the most about my characters by seeing them in action.  Their personalities come out best when I write and I find out who they are by seeing how they react to different situations.

One of the most valuable character exercises I've ever done was to write an epistolary novel with a friend.  The great thing about co-writing is that you don't necessarily have control over the situations that arise, so when your friend lobs you a stink of magic and a lost kitten, your character charges off to the library to sneak into the forbidden section and you learn that she is both impulsive and believes that sufficient research will answer all questions.

If you lack friends of suitably writerly qualities to do an epistolary novel but who enjoy reading your work, you can get to know your character by writing short stories one section at a time and letting your reader weigh in on where the story should go (or where s/he thinks the story is going; I've altered many a character exploration mid-course when my reader unwittingly gave me a great idea.)  You can also try throwing your character into random situations.  Books of writing prompts are especially good for this - you can flip open a page, pick a prompt, and let your character run wild.  If all else fails, take a look at your story and put your character into other character's shoes; what would s/he do if confronted with this issue?  Would s/he respond in the same way as the character you currently have there, and if not, how?

How do you get to know your characters?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Life: Special Occasion Chocolate Raspberry Genoise (part 1)

One summer, while at vacation on the beach, my family happened across a Julia Childs show on TV.  She had as her guest Alice Medrich, who made an incredible Raspberry Ruffle Genoise cake that looked so good we had to try it.  I've made the cake several more times since then and altered some parts of the recipe and instructions to suit a lifestyle that doesn't feature a professional kitchen.  The cake is both delicious and stunning, and if you need any further inspiration you can watch the video on PBS here.  If you're a purist, I understand that the original recipe is available in "Baking with Julia."

There are three parts to making this cake - baking the cakes, prepping the filling and cakes for assembly, and assembling the cake.  Let's send August out with a chocolatey bang, shall we?

Chocolate Genoise
3 Tbsp melted unsalted butter (you can sub oil, but you shouldn't)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 c plus 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
 1/3 c plus 1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch-processed)
4 large eggs
2/3 c sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 and prepare an 8 inch pan with parchment paper in the bottom.

Mix the flour and cocoa together in a small bowl; if you have a sifter, you can sift them together, but I've made the cake just with mixing and it came out fine. 

Ok, this is where things get tricky.  Because a genoise doesn't have a chemical leavener, you're reliant on the air whipped into the eggs to keep the cake fluffy - and you're going to be whipping those eggs over heat.  Once the eggs are ready, you'll want to move quickly with the rest of the ingredients.  The flour and cocoa should be close at hand.  Add the vanilla to the melted butter and keep hot - I will usually put the butter/vanilla mixture in a ramekin and stick it in a hot water bath until I'm ready for it.

Once you have everything set up, whisk the eggs and sugar together in a metal bowl and set over a pot of simmering water.  (You can also do this in a heavy pan over direct heat, but keep the heat low and make sure to use a pan that conducts heat evenly.  I like my big Le Creuset pot for this step.)  Whisk gently until the mixture is lukewarm (100 degrees, if you have a thermometer), then remove the bowl from the heat and beat with a hand mixer on high.  The egg mixture should triple in volume (it will be foamy, then smooth out, then get thick) and form a ribbon when you lift the beaters up.  It will probably take you about ten minutes and the eggs should be cool and a little stiff at the end.  Do not skimp on this step - this will hold up your cake.

When the eggs are prepared, gently add one third of your flour/cocoa mix and very, very gently fold it into the eggs.  The idea is to mix the ingredients without destroying those lovely fluffy eggs.  When it is all incorporated, add the rest and fold gently.

Drop your hot butter/vanilla mix into a large bowl and fold in about a cup of the chocolatey eggs.  Add this back to the batter and fold in.  Spoon the batter into the cake pan and bake for 25-30 minutes until well-risen and slightly firm to the touch.

Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan.  Let cool in the pan 5-10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack.  When the cake is completely cool, remove the parchment paper.

Genoise keeps well and can be wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for up to two weeks. 

Next up - preparing the cake and making the filling!


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Weird Al Yankovic

I've been vaguely aware of Weird Al since the nineties, around the time that "Amish Paradise" came out, but I didn't actively dive into the videos until a friend made me aware of Weird Al's most recent releases.  If you've missed this glorious form of entertainment, all me to to present to you a few of my favorites:

"Amish Paradise"
For my Mennonite audience.  Weird Al parodies both the song itself and the music video (the original, "Gangsta's Paradise," was attached to the movie Dangerous Minds.)

"The Saga Begins"
The Star Wars one.  You knew this was coming!  I especially appreciate the Sith Lord pianist.

"White and Nerdy"
Classic Weird Al.  I personal feel that his parodies of rap songs are the best because they give him an opportunity to do a lot of word play.

"Word Crimes"
Speaking of words...if you have any interested in the English language, you'll appreciate this video. (Fellow writers, this is for you!)

And last, but not least, my favorite of the new batch of Weird Al songs, possibly because it got stuck in my head or possibly because it has Patton Oswalt in it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday Writing: 5 Lessons on Writing Interactive Fiction

August marks one year of writing interactive fiction, and on looking back over the five stories I drafted in that time, I find that I've learned a lot about the process.  I had unwittingly been writing proto-interactive fiction in the form of branching character studies for years, but it took me some time to find my footing.  Interactive fiction poses challenges that don't appear in single narrative fiction, primarily the necessity of maintaining a line of narrative that can open organically into multiple options and resolve in a satisfying manner in each of them.  I learned important lessons with each story and I'd like to share them with you today.

1. Outline
I wrote my first story, "Among Thieves," while in Indianapolis for GenCon.  Between sessions I would park myself near an outlet and type like mad, inspired by the creative nature of the con (and the extended time alone I had).  I didn't outline; I just wrote.  My first draft was nearly three times longer than the word count guideline and so complicated that I had to map all of my choices at the end just to remember everything that had happened.  Editing (on my end, at least) was a monster.  That was the end of ever writing without an outline.

2. Simplify
It's no secret that I like secrets, betrayals, and plot twists in my stories.  Unfortunately, that often plays out by landing me in the middle of an overly complex story with shifting alliances and new information, and that can be difficult to track and suitably wrap up in the word count allotted for a short story.  In writing my spy story "Covert Affairs" (which ended up being a two-parter) I realized that I needed to streamline my process.  Outlining had helped a lot, but I needed to rethink how I wrote short stories and how many elements I could really introduce.

3. Develop a rich world
When you have stripped your story down to the basics and created a character for your reader to relate to, you cannot skimp on the world.  You want a fully realized world for your reader to play in.  When I was writing "Agent in Time" I tried to put in lots of sensory detail and evocative description to bring a futuristic New Orleans to life. (Other lesson learned: don't write time travel interactive fiction if you're a novice).  Since your character and story are simplified, a rich world can provide depth and a strong sense of place for your story.

4. Offer real choices
By my fourth story, "Summer Heat" (not yet published) I really had the process down.  I used Scrivener to plot and write my story, so I could both map the changes and move easily between sections, and I had slimmed the size down to two layers of choices with three to four endings.  But with a more simplified story, I really had to work to create choices that were true to the character, had a significant effect on plot, and resolved in line with the narrative created by those choices.  That can be tricky in a romance where the heroine can end up with one of two heroes, but having genuine choices are really important.  You want your reader to feel as though the choices they've made change the direction of the story or why bother with the choice?

5. Provide satisfying endings
I played Mass Effect 3 and it taught me everything I need to know about endings.  Well, perhaps I exaggerate, but I will say that as an RPG player I have learned a lot from games about providing satisfying endings.  As a reader you're pouring a chunk of your time and attention into a story, and so it's reasonable to expect an ending in line with the rest of the story.  If the author just stopped the story without resolution, you'd feel pretty cheated.  You know those old choose-your-own-adventure books that nine times out of ten sent you to a "you died" page?  Yeah, I hated those.  This has been one of my biggest challenges in writing interactive fiction, especially in my noir, "Yeux des Anges" (not yet published); I want all of my endings to fit with the narrative and character and to provide some kind of resolution to the story.  I want the story to be satisfying no matter which ending you choose.

Readers, gamers, and writers!  What do you like to see in your interactive fiction?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Friday Life: Bruschetta and Variations

Summer in Seattle remains hot and the desire to turn on anything that generates heat - oven, stove, lights - remains low.  Fortunately, summer means an abundance of fresh fruits and veggies and herbs, so one can graze quite contentedly on blueberries and peppers and avocado and yogurt and cold cereal and never have to cook anything at all.  Perhaps, however, you have guests coming and you need an elegant, easy appetizer that requires a minimum of oven time while still bursting with summer flavors.  Allow me to introduce you to bruschetta (pronounced "broosketta" if you are or speak Italian and "brooshetta" if you have a German background or are American).

Bruschetta is a wonderfully flexible appetizer, consisting (as it does) of grilled bread with things on top.  It's quick, easy to make, requires a minimum of ingredients, looks nice, and tastes delicious.  Here is the  basic bruschetta recipe followed by several of my favorite variations.


crusty bread (day old bread is great for this)
olive oil
fresh basil leaves
fresh tomatoes (from your garden or a farmer's market is best)

Slice the bread into 1/4 inch thick slices and toast (in the oven, in a toaster oven, or over a flame) until crispy.  While the bread is hot, half the garlic clove and rub it over the bread, squeezing gently to get the juice out.  Brush the bread with olive oil, then top with a basil leaf and a tomato slice.

Var. 1 (The Family)
My family has some (distant) French roots, and I choose to claim that as the reason that my mother always used baguettes for bruschetta and added cheese.

baguette (recipe here)
olive oil
fresh basil leaves
fresh tomatoes
feta cheese (sub. mozzarella for a more traditionally Italian dish or goat cheese for creamy deliciousness)

Slice the bread and brush with olive oil.  Toast in the oven until crispy, then top with basil leaf, tomato slice, and cheese of your choice.

Var. 2 (The Restaurant)
It took me longer than it should have to figure out the trick to this recipe.  The sweetness of the balsamic vinaigrette really sets off the fresh tomato.

crusty bread
olive oil
fresh basil leaves
fresh tomatoes
balsamic vinaigrette

Prepare the bread, olive oil, and garlic as in the base recipe.  Chop the tomatoes and basil leaves and mix.  Add balsamic vinaigrette to taste (about 1 tsp per tomato) to the tomatoes and basil, then top the bread with the tomato and basil mixture.

Var. 3 (The Olive)
 I love olives with a passion, especially black Kalamata olives.  You can make this with green olives too.

crusty bread
olive oil
fresh basil leaves

Prepare the bread, olive oil, and garlic as in the base recipe.  Chop the olives and basil and mix with parmesan.  Top the bread with the olive mixture.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Guardians of the Galaxy

I'm not sure there's much to say about "Guardians of the Galaxy" except that it is the epitome of what a summer popcorn movie should be.  Action?  Check.  Hilarity?  Double check.  Rag-tag crew, high stakes, and a hint of sentiment?  Check, check, and check.  I've seen the film compared to "Star Wars," and Chris Pratt compared to a young Harrison Ford, to which I say, "Don't get cocky, kid."

Still, I think there's some truth to the comparison.  "Guardians" is funnier and less epic than "Star Wars" but there's definitely a similar feel there, from the merc only in it for the money and his verbally-challenged partner, to the smart, determined young woman on a mission to save the galaxy.  "Star Wars" is a little more streamlined, but although "Guardians" packs a lot of Marvel backstory into one movie, the writing does a good job of relegating details to the background in favor of focusing on the plot.  If you don't know who the Kree are and you've never heard of Thanos, you're still going to enjoy the movie.

The plot itself is nothing new - there's a MacGuffin, everyone wants it - but the way in which the story unfolds feels surprisingly fresh, and there are a few sweet moments here and there.  A lot of fun is had with alien misunderstanding of human metaphors, and if the climax is a little predictable, well, the actors are good enough that I was willing to play along.

Marvel has managed to create an impressive franchise of summer popcorn movies, and I have to say I hope it catches on.  Lately action seems to have lost a lot of the humor that makes action flicks so appealing.  It's a trend that I suspect was set by Nolan's Batman movies, and while the dark and gritty really worked for Batman, that's just not Superman's game.  You can angst him up all you want, but at heart Superman is a clean cut, optimistic boy scout.  Honestly, Marvel modernized that blend perfectly in Captain America.  I'm a little sad that it's not Marvel's folks doing the upcoming Batman/Superman (with special guest appearance by Wonder Woman) movie, because I can only think that would be awesome.

Oh well.  Now where's my Black Widow trilogy?