Monday, June 14, 2021

Gadgets and Gimmicks

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 12

Way back in Part 2 ("The Tools of the Trade") I discussed some of the essential items you need in your cooking and writing arsenal if you want to be successful. Today, I want to look at some of the gimmicks and gadgets you can use to make your life easier in the kitchen and add some pizzazz to your writing.

Let's get right to it with a list of cool things I have in my kitchen that I simply couldn't do without anymore.

Kitchen Gadgets

Shot Glass Measuring Cup. You need a lot of measuring cups and spoons in your kitchen so you can add precise amounts of spices, flour, sugar, milk, wine, or broth at the exact moment called for in the recipe.A shot glass measuring cup helps you add small amounts of liquid (an ounce or teaspoon or tablespoon) precisely. I use mine for honey and brown sugar when I make my own teriyaki sauce.

High Wall Baking Sheet. We all have baking sheets that we use for baking cookies, heating up fries in the oven and placing under pie tins when we fear they may bubble over. But a high-walled baking sheet is the best way to cook large pieces of meat like a turkey or a ham or a couple racks of ribs. The high walls keep the juices in but are low enough to allow the heat to circulate around the meat for more even cooking.

Baking Rack. Add this to your high-wall baking sheet to raise your meat out of the juices and allow the heat circulate beneath as well as completely around as you bake.

Silicone Baking Mat. The last piece you need for your baking sheet. Silicone mats are amazing. Easy to clean AND keep your baking sheet shiny no matter how many times you use them.

Wooden Tongs. A good set of wooden tongs are a must if you are cooking in a high-temp, non-stick skillet that might melt your silicone-tipped tongs. I use mine for bacon or sausages mostly, but they come in handy any time you need to turn or flip meat in a skillet (steaks, chicken breasts, etc.).

Silicone Cast-Iron Skillet Handle. Speaking of high-heat, I love the silicone handle cover I got for my cast-iron skillet. Sometimes, you just can't beat an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet (absolutely necessary for Yorkshire pudding). Unlike modern skillets that use non-conducting materials for the handles, all the heat transfers to the handle on a cast-iron skillet. Thus the silicone sleeve.

Spatula Thermometer. I have a couple instant-read thermometers, which are absolutely necessary for getting meat heated through to the correct internal temperature. The spatula version of this essential tool is great for sauces, bread-making (to check the temp of the water you're adding to the yeast) and whenever you're deep-frying and need to keep a constant temperature in your oil. 

Writing Gimmicks

Unlike cooking gadgets, you can't just go out and buy these items (other than the thesaurus; although you still need skill to use one correctly). Instead, you must develop these techniques over time through practice and research. Here are a few of my favorites.

Simile and Metaphor. As a writer, the most important thing you do is to describe the world your characters travel through. For fantasy and science fiction writers, especially, those worlds can be so strange and alien that it can be tough to describe them in ways that readers can understand. That's where a good metaphor or simile comes in handy. These help you relate what the characters see to something the readers will understand. Just be careful not to break the illusion of the story. Saying a strange large rock formation looks like a football balancing on a golf tee won't make sense if your character lives in a world without those two sports.

Thesaurus. I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Choosing the strongest nouns and verbs you can find to describe actions and items in your world is far superior to stringing together a bunch of adjectives or adverbs. It makes your writing stronger, tighter, and less cluttered, which are all good things. A good thesaurus will help you find the best words to use whenever you get stuck in your writing. Most word processors come with one, but I find them to be too limited. I use Rhymezone, a website created for poets that you can use to find synonyms as well as rhymes. You can even go down the rabbit hole of  looking at related words "grouped by relation" which can be a lot of fun.

Foreshadowing. There is an old saying in murder mysteries: "Don't put a gun on the mantle in act one unless you plan to use it in act three." This is foreshadowing, and it is a tricky gimmick to use. You often want to give your readers a peak at what's to come later on so they don't feel completely blindsided by some major plot development. For example, if readers don't know a character is an astrophysicist when they first meet them, when that character starts spouting some quantum mechanics integral to the plot later on, it will feel odd and forced (and just a little too convenient). 

You have to be careful with foreshadowing, though. If you are too obvious when you mention it (or mention it too often), readers may see your plot twists coming a mile away. If you are too oblique (or don't mention it often enough), you risk losing some readers when the revelation becomes important. Make sure you integrate the foreshadowing into the narrative so it feels natural and not forced and then reinforce it once or twice again during the story to make sure all readers catch the reference.

Plot Structure. I have discussed this before, so I won't go into a lot of detail here, but having a plot structure in mind as you write can help keep you on the rails as you move through your story. I often use the three-act structure where action intensifies through act one as things fall apart, the characters try to find ways to combat the obstacles in act two, and then everything falls apart again at the end of the act, forcing the characters to change gears in act three to find a new solution to the main problem. This structure helps readers as well, because they understand where they are in the story, but the rising and falling action of this structure also maintains reader interest as the action builds toward multiple climaxes as reader move through the story.

Analogy and Allegory. Similar to simile and metaphor, analogies and allegories help writers convey information to the reader through comparison. These two gimmicks work at higher and larger levels, however — more at the plot structure level than the word, sentence, or paragraph level. An analogy is simply comparing one thing to another that makes people assume additional similarities in other aspects. So, you might write a story where two character who are going to fall in love must fight each other in a fencing match (or tennis or whatever). The sporting competition becomes analogous to the development of their relationship (turning it into a contest).

Allegories plot structures where the story being told is directly comparable to other stories that have deeper meanings. These are often used by science fiction writers (especially) to delve into topics that are tough to discuss straight on (religion, politics, race relations, etc.) without bringing all the baggage those sensitive topics carried by both writers and readers. The original series Star Trek episode "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield" was an allegory about race relations set on a planet where people were half-black and half-white, with right-half-white people hating left-half-white people and vice-versa. Silly? Today, maybe. But still insightful and depressing as we see what has happened in America since this episode first aired more than 50 years ago.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Finding the “Hook”

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 11

In most forms of storytelling, from novels and short stories to television programs and movies, creators constantly search for the right hook to hang their story on. We all want to find the perfect, innovative element that will make our manuscripts stand out from the crowd, attract attention from readers (and, often more importantly, editors or agents), and give our stories a unique perspective that sets them apart from every other variation on a theme ever written. 

Take the fascinating Netflix series, Russian Doll, which premiered in early 2019. The hook in this "Groundhog Day" story is that the main character's time loop always occurs at the moment of her death. This not only gives her ample reason to break the loop, but provides for some incredibly dramatic character moments. This same idea is utilized in the 2020 Oscar-winning short, Two Distant Strangers, with the hook that the main character (a black man just trying to get home to his dog) dies at the hands of police every time, making it a powerful statement on policing and race relations today. Seriously, watch this short movie. It is important and moving.

The Need for Hooks

For many writers, hooks are a way to characterize their story when describing it to an interested party (another author, a reader, an editor or agent or, if they are lucky, a Hollywood producer). It's that piece of the story you insert into your "elevator pitch" to differentiate it from another story the person may be more familiar with. For example, my first novel, Judgment, is Apocalypse Now, but set on Dominaria (one of the worlds of Magic: The Gathering) with a barbarian mage named Kamal standing in for Martin Sheen's weathered military officer forced to travel into the jungle to face his destiny.

I would argue, however, that a more important facet of the hook is that it helps authors find the spark in their own stories. Like most authors, I have plenty of story ideas, but I often find I don't pursue any particular story until I find the hook that draws ME into writing it. I think I speak for most writers when I say that I don't want to just write the same story everyone else is writing. And I don't want to write the same story I've written before. To get me interested in spending time writing a story, there has to be something in there that sets it apart, something that intrigues me, something that gets my blood pumping with excitement.

This thought occurred to me while I was preparing to cook dinner last week. As I have mentioned in this space before, I often look for some piece (often a side dish) to hang an entire meal upon. Sure, I have prepared lots of meals that were nearly identical to every other version of the same meal. I mean, taco salad is always going to be taco salad (although even my staple meals have evolved and become more complex over time). But, sometimes I want to be inspired and I flail for ideas for a meal until I find that one piece that pulls it all together.

This night, last week, I was planning to make pork chops, which I have cooked a thousand times. I was less than enthused about the prospect, but also had very little energy (or time) to find a new recipe and try something completely different. That's when I remembered I had picked up some fun, take-and-bake garlic rolls from the store that morning. I pulled those out and added them to some other staple side dishes and suddenly (for me anyway) that meal transformed into something new and fun and creative. I had my inspiration, which drove me forward into meal prep.

I realized at that point that I do the same thing with my writing. Sometimes, I am not inspired and the writing feels labored. But when I have the hook in place, it pulls me through the writing and it almost feels like I can't stop until the entire story is down on paper. This happened to me recently when I wrote a 9,000-word short story in four days. It's an adventure story about a small group of aliens working behind enemy lines to pull off a caper. 

The original idea came to me when I began thinking about how cool it would be to take the concept of Hogan's Heroes and set it in space in the far future. Now, the story evolved from there and bears little resemblance to that 1960s sitcom, but that hook got me so excited, the story practically gushed out of me.

This is what a good hook does for a writer. Hooks inspire us to write just as much as they inspire readers to read and viewers to watch.So, the question becomes, where do you find the right hooks for your own writing (or for your meal prep if that's more your thing).

Searching for Hooks

Hooks, like ideas, can come from  anywhere. But like ideas, just about every hook has already been used by someone somewhere in some story. We are all just writing variations on the same old tales about love and hate, life and death, friendship and betrayal, growth and decay. The trick is to find a unique angle — perhaps something from  your own experiences — that provides a fresh take on an old story. Here are a few ways to help jump-start that process.

Thematic Juxtaposition. I touched on this in the preceding paragraph. What is the theme of your story? Is it all about living a good life? Then perhaps adding a hook related to death will spark ideas for the story. Perhaps the death of a loved one or a cherished pet (or even just a random death reported in the news) is enough to make your character re-evaluate her life well lived. Blade Runner is a story about a human detective sent to take down killer replicants, but those same replicants know more about living than the dead-inside human sent to kill them. Thematic juxtaposition can turn your story on its head and make it memorable.

Variation on a Theme. You don't always have to turn your story upside-down to make it memorable, however. Varying a single piece of your story from a tried-and-true plot can make it stand out from the rest of the crowd in that particular trope. For example, I recently wrote a story about the Norse god Baldur for the Turning the Tied anthology that I wanted to feel like an actual legend straight out of the Norse myths. The plot of the story was a simple hero's journey akin to Prometheus bringing fire to man. The variation I added was that the entire journey was a trick by Loki to try to trip up Baldur. This took this simple story idea and twisted it to the side a little and added an edge to it.

Random Research (Rabbit Holing). I often start out my search for a new idea with online research into the subject I want to write about. For example, when coming up with the proposal for my Kolchak novel, Strangled by Death, I spent days researching supernatural legends, looking for some monster that hadn't been used over and over in popular media. I eventually happened on stories about "Hands of Death," which were, according to the stories, used by thieves to put entire households to sleep so they could rob them. Before I got there, however, I had gone deep down many Wikipedia rabbit holes. 

What I love about this method is that it allows your brain to lead you to places you might not have gone before. One link leads to many others. You follow one over another because it appears more interesting, which then leads you further down the rabbit hole into more and more things that jump out at you for whatever reason your brain find them interesting. It's like a spark generator that just keeps firing until you have immersed yourself in a series of hooks that are making the synapses in your brain fire like a gatling gun. That's when you know you're hooked on the idea you've found at the bottom of that hole.

Bypass the Easy Answer 

Obviously, there are other ways to find your hook. Things like listing random ideas on a board and then grouping them together thematically, studying an image and visually identifying relationships between them and your problem (VIR). Honestly, any good brainstorming process will help you find that piece of inspiration you need to raise your story idea up a notch. Google, VIR, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and SCAMPER (substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to other use, eliminate, rearrange) for other interesting techniques.

But, before I am done today, let me just talk a little about rejecting the first and easy ideas that pop into your head. This is just good advice for many aspects of writing. In fact, it is one of the best (and oldest) pieces of advice I was ever given about writing. 

When you are contemplating your hook (or some obstacle in front of your characters or a plot twist or a character growth moment), it is almost always a bad idea to go with the very first idea that pops into your head. Why is this? Because that first idea is invariably the easy answer. It is also the idea that every other author will think of first (or has thought of before many times) as well. It will almost invariably lack originality.

So, dig deeper. Go past that first idea and find one that will challenge you (or your character). Find one that will change your story in ways you can't even imagine, which will make the writing fresh as you try to keep up and get ahead of the mess your new idea makes of your plot line. It's amazing where rejecting the easy answer can take you.

In Soulless Fury, my most recent Necromunda novel, both main characters (who are adversaries) have incredibly powerful pet companions that just made every fight easier for them. At one point, I realized I needed to remove the pets from the story to make life harder for the characters. 

That change colored much of the rest of the book because both characters had to deal with those loses in their own ways, which forced them to grow and gave them some common ground when they eventually were forced to team up. This really helped turn what was a simple chase plot into a story about loss and growth and change. It helped me dig deeper into the story of two powerful and complicated women trying to find their way in (very male dominated) brutal world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Art of the Appetizer

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 10

This week, I want to write about small plates and short stories. Both serve similar audience niches in their respective settings. Small plates (or appetizers in most American restaurants) give you a taste of a particular dish or meal without filling you up. They also can provide a wonderful complement to the subsequent main dish. Likewise, good short stories give readers everything a novel provides — plots, perhaps a subplot or two, character growth, and a satisfying or thought-provoking conclusion.

Another similarity small plates and short stories share is that my skill in both suffers from an aggravatingly similar issue: I try to put too much into them, which makes them just a bit messier than I'd like.

A good appetizer is packed with flavor from some non-singular number of different elements but is bite-sized so all that flavor explodes in your mouth at once. Bacon-wrapped prawns and crab-stuffed mushrooms are good examples. For fancier gatherings, spring and summer rolls filled with all sorts of meats and herbs and mini tostadas topped with cheese and fruit or seasoned meats are wonderful and can literally explode in your mouth when done right. 

A good short story can weave an intricate tale with fully-developed characters that transports you to another world in just a few thousand words and makes you feel deep emotions when those characters ultimately succeed or fail. One of my favorite short stories of all time was 

Where I Go Wrong

I believe the problem I have with both small plates and short stories stems from how I learned to cook and to write. I started cooking on a regular basis when I became a stay-at-home dad and freelance writer. At the time, I was cooking for a family of five with three growing, school-age children. I cooked large, easy (often ready-to-make) meals at first, which eventually transformed into large, slightly more complicated (more often from scratch) meals as I became more skilled in my cooking. 

The common element in all of the meals I have made in the past 20 years was that they were large. I am well-known within our family for loading the table down with too much food, and not just on Thanksgiving day. Likewise, when I started writing fiction, early in my writing career, I was tasked with writing novels. Sure, I sought out and wrote short stories at the same time, but it was the novels that really sparked my interest.

A typical novel runs anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 words. I have written shorter novels (sometimes called novellas, but not always), and big-name authors have written numerous 300,000-word novels. The point here is that novels are large. The typical short story you find in magazines or anthologies, on the other hand, run between 3,000 and 7,000 words. I've seen great 1,500 word short stories and there is a category of shorts called "Flash Fiction" that run no more than about 500 words.

My short stories probably average somewhere around 9,000 words. The reason, I have often thought, is that I write short stories like I write novels. In a novel, you have time to explore the setting and the minor characters, and space to allow the plot to meander a bit as it works its way through the 3-act structure toward the culmination of the final conflict.

Short stories, like small plates, require the author/chef to be frugal with their elements/ingredients and maximize the impact from every piece added to the mix. A good hors d'oeuvre has a small piece of meat and/or cheese topped with a sprinkling of fresh herbs or a dollop of seasoned stuffing spooned into a perfectly cooked mushroom cap topped with a few shred of melted cheese.

I tend to be more of a dumper when I cook. I keep adding crab flakes or crumbled bacon to my stuffing mixture until I have too much to comfortably stuff into the available mushrooms. I cut my slices of meat or fish too large because I worry there won't be enough there to bring out the flavors. I over-stuff and I overfeed, again most likely because I am used to making large meals instead of small plate. I have never mastered the art of getting big flavor from finely-balanced combinations of smaller portions. 

Build Smaller or Cut Back

I long ago accepted my shortcomings with short stories and small plates and have a developed a few tricks to help me deal with my tendency to  cook and write big. For my small plates, I have learned to make my dollops smaller. I use a melon-baller or a small spoon to fill my mushrooms. I try to worry less about what to do with extra filling or meat and either put it away for another time or find some other small plate where I can incorporate the extras.

When it comes to short stories, I have a different tactic. Instead of forcing myself to write small, I allow my expansive nature to control the first draft. But, when I go back through that initial first draft, I try to trim a good ten percent of my words. I seek out overly complex passages and tighten the prose. I look for spots where the plot has gotten a little out of hand and see if I can get those plot points across in less space (or drop them entirely if they are not adding to the flavor of the whole). If I have two or three sentences of description, I cut back to just the best bits of all of them. 

When I am writing a first draft, I try to keep my scenes short so the story moves along more quickly. Where I like to write 1,000- or 1,500-word scenes in a novel, I try for 500 words max in a short story. This helps constrain my wordiness and give me enough scenes to fit in all the plot. 

The one piece I can still do better on is to not try to pack quite so much plot into my short stories. In my two most recent short stories (one in the Turning the Tied anthology and another that will appear in a Renegade Legion digital anthology from Budgie Smuggler games), I definitely created plots that were too intricate and expansive for the story-size requested. Even after trimming and tightening, both of these stories ran a bit long.

Don't get me wrong. I am proud of both of these stories. I think they are well-paced well and believe they read as easily and quickly as shorter efforts from other authors. I just have never mastered the skill of telling a deep, compelling story in a small space and maybe that's okay. I happen to like a little more meat in my meals and my stories.

 

Monday, April 26, 2021

It's All in the Timing

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 9

I've been thinking a lot about pacing this past week. In any narrative piece of entertainment, pacing is the speed at which things happen in relation to other things. Sometimes this means how fast the action driving the story forward occurs in comparison to other elements of the story, like plot and character development. It can also mean how quickly the main plot progresses in comparison to elements of the subplots.

Getting the pacing right in a story is a difficult balance between keeping readers interested in the story by moving the plot along at a good clip while spending time to build thematic depth to provide meaning to the plot and developing the characters into something more than 2-dimensional plot movers.

In the somewhat distant past, authors had more time to develop this depth because entertainment moved at a slower pace. Don't believe me? Look at a movie from the 1940s and compare it to a move from the 2010s. Books are the same. Whenever I reread a favorite book from my childhood, I am amazed at how slow the story moves. I mean, Tolkien literally spends four pages of the first chapter of The Hobbit having Thorin orate an exhaustive history of his forefathers accumulation of wealth in the mines of Moria and their eventual defeat at the hands of Smaug.

A modern author likely would sprinkle the pieces of that story throughout the first third of the book instead of dumping it all at once in chapter one. The pacing of stories changed forever with the advent of television, which told shorter stories that moved through the three-act structure in 22 minutes for comedies and 42 minutes for hour-long dramas. 

Today, many mainstream movies follow the same formula for pacing: Within ten minutes you must introduce the main characters and their salient backgrounds and issues because the "inciting incident" ( the first crisis that drives the plot forward) must occur by minute 10 (page 10 of the script). Because so many movies move at this quick pace, that films that don't follow this formula (often indie movies) are often labeled as "slow."

Inciting Pacing Examples

I'm not immune to this feeling either. In the past week, I watched two different pieces of streaming entertainment that brought all of this to the forefront for me. First was the season finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I had not realized until after episode five that this season was going to end with episode six. 

Up to that point, I hadn't understood the pacing of the plot. The subplots introduced in episode one had lain fallow for a couple of episodes and I had wondered at the time why we weren't seeing more of the two main characters' home lives (which were introduced in depth in the first episode). But with only six episodes, it began to make sense to me. 

The subplots reared their heads in each of the two-episode "act" of the season plot structure, and then came to the fore again in the final third of the story to bring everything together. The pacing, which seemed odd when I was expecting eight to ten episodes made a lot more sense in a six-episode story arc.

The other streamed show I watched this past week was an indie movie called The Vast of Night on Prime. This 90-minute movie tells a Twilight-Zone-esque story set in the American heartland in the 1950s. I kid you not, this movie spent at least 20 minutes (more than one-quarter) of the movie introducing the relationship between the two main characters as they moved through the parking lot of the local high school talking to families arriving for a big basketball game. It felt to me (as I said) s-l-o-w! 

Now, I love indie movies and I appreciate a well-made film that takes its time to tell the story. Also this past week, I watched Nomadland, the Academy-award winning movie about transient elderly people living in vans and traveling around the West from part-time job to part-time job. It was wonderful. Even though the pacing wasn't Fast and Furious, it maintained my interest because it invested me in the characters and their lives immediately.

But Vast of Night didn't work for me. I think, in part, because each of the interactions the two main characters had with different people in the parking lot didn't differ enough to stand out. They just became this long, walking tour of sameness (which maybe was the point; this was white, middle-class America in the 1950s after all, which was about to be turned upside down by some strange, Twilight Zone happenings. But it lost me before I got to the inciting incident. The movie didn't give me enough reason to wade through the parade of blandness.

What does all this have to do with cooking?

Okay. Thanks for bearing with me through this long intro. I know, ironic, isn't it? The final piece of the pacing puzzle occurred to me while I was cooking a big meal for a Sunday family dinner honoring my daughter-in-law's birthday. I had decided to make a butterflied leg of lamb using a wonderful recipe I found a couple years ago. 

This recipe is pretty fiddly. After butterflying the leg, you spread a pasty herb rub all over the meat and then let it sit for an hour. You then broil both sides for 8 minutes (turning at least once on each side for even cooking) and then let it rest again for another 10 minutes before popping it into the oven to bake for about 50 minutes (until it reaches 140 degrees internal temp).

Now, this particular night, I decided to make a couple of easy side dishes that I knew I could put together in that last 50 minutes of cooking time to make sure that everything was ready at the same time to be put onto the table. We had crispy-baked potatoes wedges and steamed broccoli. I've made both of these dishes many times so know how long each takes to prepare, preheat, and cook. 

I also wanted to bake cheesy-garlic biscuits (you know, Red Robin biscuits), which I mixed so I could bake in the bottom oven while the lamb was broiling in the top oven.  Then, after the biscuits were done and the lamb rested, I could put the lamb down in the lower oven with the meat probe, and then start on the sides.

This constant moving from main dish to side dish, from one oven to another (plus the toaster oven for the potatoes and the stove top for the steamed veggies) is what the pacing of cooking is all about. (Plus, don't forget the prep time to get to the cooking stage at the right time.) It's a balancing act that requires precise timing. How long does each dish need to cook? How much prep time is needed? Does the meat need to rest afterward? Can a dish be kept warm without losing its flavor and visual appeal? 

These are all questions a cook must answer before starting a meal if they want everything to be ready in time for everyone to sit down to a multi-course meal and absolutely analogous to the pacing in a story. (See part 3 of this series for more on the connections between subplots and side dishes.)

When I write a novel, I must balance the necessary points of the main plot alongside the required development of the main character so that the events driving the story along reach the critical point at the same moment the character has the major breakthrough in their development that allows them to be in the right place (both physically and mentally) to handle that final crisis.

In addition, if I am weaving subplots throughout the novel that will interact with the main plot at that same critical juncture (perhaps bringing a secondary character to the point of crisis at the same moment as the main character but through a completely different story line), the pacing of that subplot must be carefully manipulated so that everything comes to a boil at the same moment during the climax. This was the issue I had with Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I didn't understand the pacing because I didn't expect the climax to occur after only six episodes.

So, just like when I am juggling the preparation of different side dishes so they are ready at the same time as the main dish, when I am writing, I must juggle all the parts of the subplots and all the character and theme development alongside moving the elements of the main plot along so everything comes to fruition at the same time during the last act. Plus, I must do all of this while not losing the reader's interest.

 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Make a (Three-Course) Meal of Your Story

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 8

I've discussed this topic tangentially a couple of times during this series (see part 1 and part 3), but I wanted to spend a full blog talking about how to construct both a full meal and a complete story.

There is a reason why the "three-course meal" and the "three-act structure" are important concepts in their respective arts. 

For one thing, the number three has mythical power in the world. Both Christianity and the ancient Egyptian mythos have a holy trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Osiris, Isis, and Horus). Greek mythology has Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld. The Norse — and most mythologies — break the world into three realms (Asgard or heaven, Midgard or Earth, and Nilfheim or the underworld or hell). 

Humans often break sequences of life into threes. We are born, we live, we die. We go through adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Thousands of years ago, the Greeks believed in the Fates who governed the three phases of life. Today, modern feminine philosophies have rediscovered the trinity of maiden, mother, and crone, who lend their particular strengths to women at certain phases of their lives.

This concept of beginning, middle, and end is powerful and ubiquitous, which is why chefs and writers use it in their art. Any piece of fiction or fine meal can feel incomplete without all three concepts present, which can send patrons away from the experience feeling unfulfilled. 

So, let's take a look at the three phases (courses or acts) of both and see what they provide and why they are important to complete the experience.

Act One — Salad / Appetizer

A salad course or a set of appetizers served before the entrée often set the tone for the entire dining experience, but they also help "wake up" the taste buds of the diners and prepare them for the flavors that will be presented during the main course. This course should be light and refreshing and should never weigh down or fill up the diner. You want this course to whet the appetite of your patron so they move on to the main dish with relish and gusto.

In stories, the first act serves the same purpose. As a writer you are introducing the readers to the tastes and themes of the story. This is where you introduce your characters and set the stage for the main  conflict those characters will face. You want to give readers a little taste of what's to come and make them hungry for more.

A light touch is critical in both of these settings. The flavors in the salad or appetizers should complement and provide a preview of what's to come in the next course. If you go too bold or spicy, you will shock the diner's palate, which can make the rest of the meal taste bland or, worse, sour, stale, or just wrong in comparison.If you disclose too much information in act one, you may accidentally disclose vital plot points that can make readers lose interest in the story during act two as everything becomes too obvious.

A good first act or course entices people to continue on to the next part. It sets the stage for what's to come, but also makes the patron hungry for more. It whets the appetite but never sates the hunger.

Act Two —Entrée

The entrée should build on the themes introduced in the first act or course, but also develop deeper and more complex flavors. For example, if you are serving a lemon fish main dish, you might introduce some citrus to the salad course. But if you don't add something more to the fish than just some lemon juice and zest — say some garlic or paprika or even pesto to add some zing, then the fish is just going to sit there, not adding anything to the light, fruity salad that you introduced to set the stage.

In your story, this is where your character begin to develop and become 3-dimensional people with real problems, past issues that impact how they react to present situations, and complex relationships with the other characters in the story. This is also where you deepen the plot with some pressing dangers or interpersonal conflicts that drive the story forward. 

Act two is also where you introduce the subplots, which as we've discussed, are analogous to a meal's side dishes (see Part 3, Of Side Dishes and Sub Plots). As mentioned in that post, both side dishes and subplots help you deepen the tastes or themes that you are presenting in your meal or story. They can provide important counterpoints to the main dish or theme or complement that main piece to provide a point of comparison that helps reinforce that theme and bring it to the forefront from a different angle.

Let me give you example. I have a novel in development where the main characters are chasing another character who has betrayed them several times in the past. Throughout the novel, the leader of the "heroes" keeps lashing out at his companions because he personally went through a completely different betrayal recently. He doesn't blame his companions, but that past event keeps coloring his decisions. In the end, this subplot must resolve — the character needs to learn to trust again — before the main plot can resolve.

Act Three — Dessert

Think about how you feel when you eat dessert. You feel happy and, hopefully, sated — without feeling over full. That is exactly what most writers are going for in act three of their stories. They try to bring all the strands of the story together in a satisfying conclusion that sends reader away happy that they read the story and satisfied in how it concluded.

As with the first course, you want to keep a light hand here. A heavy dessert can weigh down the rest of the meal in the diner's stomach, making them feel uncomfortable. It's also vitally important to get your flavors just right. Too sweet and the patron may not be able to finish the dessert. Not sweet enough and you run the risk of not satisfying that particular appetite the often puts a smile on people's faces.

The same goes for your writing. Outside of Lifetime or Hallmark movies, most people aren't looking for a highly saccharine ending to a story. Too sweet is often seen as "unbelievable" by readers because life just doesn't work that way. On the other hand, if you end the story on a down note, readers may feel cheated out the victory they were hoping to see for the protagonists that they have been rooting for all along.

When I am writing (and also when I am watching some movies), I often hear the words of the sick grandson (played by a young Fred Savage) in the classic movie, The Princess Bride, when his grandfather tells him that the bad guy in the story — Prince Humperdinck — won't be killed at the end of the book: "Jesus, Grandpa! What did you read me this thing for?"

It turns out, the writer (the wonderful storyteller William Goldman) knew exactly what he was doing. The good guys win and the Prince gets exactly what he deserves, which, for a bully like him, is not to be killed, but to be shown just how cowardly he truly is and then left to live with that knowledge. This is what a great dessert or final act does. It completes the meal or story with the perfect capper, the sweetest taste you can leave in the the diner's mouth without going too far or being too heavy-handed. 

Then, if you've done your job by setting the stage for the main meal with a light, enticing appetizer, deepened the flavors you introduced in the first course with a rich, full, filling main course, and then topped it all off with a perfectly balanced dessert, your diners and readers will leave the table satisfied but also craving your next offering

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Eating Your Experiments

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 7

Over the years, my family has enjoyed some wonderful meals — but also suffered through some, let's say, less than appetizing results — from my culinary experiments. Still, when they ask "what's for supper?" and I reply, "An experiment," they don't immediately groan, which means, I hope, that my success rate when trying new things in the kitchen is reasonably high.

Of course, my "kitchen experiments" are generally not revolutionary, totally-from-scratch, three-course dinners. Most of the time, these fresh culinary creations are adaptations of tried-and-true meals or variations on a recipe I found online that I decided to put my own spin on.

Take, for example, the stuffed peppers in the image. I made these the other night. I had baked stuffed peppers once previously (in a bit of a failed experiment because they fell over and didn't cook thoroughly). In addition, I filled these with a seafood stuffing I've made a ton of times instead of the standard spicy meat concoction. I even looked up a recipe for stuffed peppers to get some tips on cooking time and oven temp. I learned two tricks from this research to help correct my earlier mistakes: (1) cut a slice off the bottom to make them stand straight, and (2) par-boil the peppers before stuffing them to make sure they cook through.

This par-boiling trick (something I knew about for other baked vegetable dishes, but often forget to use) might have made my last experiment previous to the peppers work out better. I tried to use thin-sliced butternut squash as noodles in an alfredo-seafood lasagna (we've been eating a lot more seafood lately). What we ended up with was cheesy seafood soup with under-cooked squash. After a little more cooking, we still ate it. But it could have worked better, and I will remember that trick next time.

The basic reason one of these experiments worked perfectly while the other had some serious structural issues was that for the peppers, I was building on skills I had already practiced (and researched the parts I needed help with), while with the squash lasagna, I went out on a limb and tried something I hadn't tried using a technique that I didn't fully understand.

Building a Foundation

This is a lesson I learned early on in my writing career. You need to learn the basics and practice using them correctly until they become second nature to you. Only then can you break the rules and get away with it. There really is no short cut to this. There is an old adage that goes something like this: "Even Picasso learned the rules of perspective before he started to break those rules intentionally." 

Breaking the rules by accident generally leads to "accidents" whether you are typing a story on your computer or preparing a meal in the kitchen (thus, the uncooked squash noodles). This goes beyond basic spelling, grammar, and sentence construction. As a writer, you need to learn a number of tricks of the trade to help your prose flow, make your points clearly, and engage the reader with your sparkling writing. 

Here are a few lessons to learn and practice:

  • Choose the best word for every situation. Nouns and verbs are the backbone of strong writing. Don't settle for variations of the verb "to be" when you can put a more evocative verb in its place, and avoid adjectives and adverbs if possible. A strong noun can stand on its own. Using an adjective often means you haven't found the best noun for the situation.
  • Vary sentence length to control the pace of your writing. Many young writers fall in love with long, complicated sentences with plenty of commas, semi-colons, and dashes (I was one of them). There is a place for long sentences in fiction. They help slow down the pace, make the reader pay more attention, and give you time to explain complicated issues. Short sentences move the story along. They make action scenes feel frenetic. They are easy to read. The create a quick pace that drives stories forward. 
  • Use rising and falling action to create tension. There is a reason most authors write stories grounded in a three-act structure. Not only are readers accustomed to this structure, but it helps provide real tension in the plot. You want the tension in a story to rise and fall in arcs. If it is all action all the time, you have no time to delve into character motivations and thematic elements. If your characters face no tension — no obstacles — the story can become bland and grind to a halt under its own weight. (A future blog in this series will dive deeper into the three-act structure.)
  • Adhere strictly to your point of view. Most fiction today is written in either first-person or third-person POV (point of view). First-person is mostly used in hard-boiled detective novels (especially those with a "film noir" flare). My new Kolchak novel (due out soon) is written first-person. Almost every other novel these days is written in third-person. The value of third person is that you can switch POV between characters at chapter breaks and even scene breaks. But, once you are in one character's POV, you must stay there. You cannot tell the reader what a non-POV character is thinking. If you want to go inside their head, end the scene and start a new one. This is a tough skill to master, but it is essential for clarity.

These are not all of the basic writing skills of fiction, but these are ones I find essential to master and ones I have had to learn through practice, which involve years of writing and re-writing a lot of stories. There is no easy way, no shortcut, for getting to the point where these skills are ingrained into your writing psyche so you can use them correctly without even thinking about — and then, intentionally, break them to do something interesting with your story.

Breaking Rules and Taking Chances

Once you master the building blocks of writing (or cooking), your experiments will begin to succeed more often than they fail. Over the past 20+ years of cooking for my family (and writing fiction, both of which began in earnest around the same time), I have built a decent foundation of skills and knowledge. 

I have a good idea what herbs and spices to use (and in what proportion) to make a dish savory without going overboard and making it too spicy, too salty, unpalatable. In my fiction, I have a good feel for tone and dialog to keep a story believable even when set in a fantastical setting. I know how much time and space to spend on description, narration, dialog, and action to keep readers grounded in the story while driving the plot forward at a good pace.

But all of that will still not make you a great writer. The best writers take chances. Almost anyone with some talent can weave together a compelling story that will keep readers turning pages. The memorable stories are the ones where the author did something new, something incredible that you weren't expecting. Some examples of this from movies include Memento and Inception, which both turned the forward-moving three-act plot structure on its head. I also loved the HBO series, Watchmen, which played with our perception of good and evil, heroes and villains, and time itself.

All that being said, it is still important to follow some rules when you are breaking the rules. Here are three I have learned over the years:

Take a chance on inspiration

When an idea pops into your head, take some time to follow it down the path before you jump in and use it. For example, what happens when your strict outline dictates that character needs to go left but you suddenly realize that character doesn't want to go left, that the way you have written them, they would never go left in this situation. What do you do?

It's almost always a good idea to follow the lead of your characters. If you have done a good enough job to make them believable, they can come to life in your head, and you will just get a feel for how they will react in most situations. However, before you jump in and head blindly down that path, you want to take some time to determine how that decision will affect your outline, and how you can gently move the character back into the path of the plot later on.

I recently got inspired by a box of Roasted Red Pepper soup I found hidden in the back of my pantry. I didn't know what I wanted to do with it at the time, but I kept thinking about that box of soup. A few days later, while looking through the freezer, I realized we had a lot of various types of seafood and suddenly the entire path of the dinner came together in my head and that night, I made an improvised Cioppino using that red pepper bisque as the basis.

Don't take the first (easy) answer

 This is a rule I was taught a long time ago and I come back to it again and again. When characters face obstacles or enemies and you are looking for ways for them to overcome those obstacles or defeat those enemies, don't always use the first idea that comes to you. This will be the easy answer, the one that probably comes to mind for a lot of people. 

Stretch your imagination to find alternative, more interesting, answers. And, sometimes, the best answer is to let your characters fail. Not only does this make the character more believable (no one wins every time), but sometimes even better ideas come from handing your character a setback that forces them (and you) to come up with an even more inventive way to move forward.

I did this recently for one of our dinners. While looking at some hamburger patties in the freezer, I thought we might do Salisbury Steaks (which we have done dozens of times and I can cook them without much thought). But I wanted to do something different that night, so I kept thinking until I came up with  new idea. Instead of using beef gravy, I made some shawarma marinade and cooked the hamburgers in that sauce. It was pretty amazing and will be something we will do again.

Turn a rule on its head

Finally, don't be afraid to turn any of the rules I have mentioned on its head as you write. I am not saying to ignore the rule. I am saying to turn it around for a specific reason in a specific circumstance. Do it intentionally. Do it purposefully.

Let me give you an example. Every writer and fiction editor will tell you the initial chapter of your novel should be written from the POV of your main character. Subsequent chapters can then switch to other POVs in relative order of importance of the characters involved. But in my most recent Necromunda novel, Soulless Fury, I began the first chapter from the POV of a relatively minor character. I did this for several specific reasons. 

First, this character had special insight into the nature of the world and, especially, the specific setting I was using for the initial scenes. Starting with him gave me the ability to describe the setting and some of the themes of the novel more directly. Second, the main character was searching for something and I wanted to keep that something a secret for as long as possible. Third, and most importantly, the main character is crazy, mad, insane. She is described in the lore of the world I was writing in as a "force of nature." I wanted her first appearance to be described from the outside, as she swept into town like a tornado destroying everything in her path. 

Finding Your Own path

There is so much more I could say on this subject, but at this point, I think the best way to help you master these techniques is to set you loose to do the work yourself. As I mentioned earlier, the best way to learn the skills you need to become a better writer or cook (or, actually, any creative endeavor) is to go practice. 

The absolute best advice I ever received about writing was this: If you want to be a writer, then write (and read) a lot! But you have to do both of those with a critical eye. See what works (and doesn't work) in both your own writing and in the writing of other authors (both good and bad). Sometimes you have to eat your mistakes so you can learn how to not make those same mistakes again.

 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Making a Roux

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 6

Sauces are the bane of my cooking existence. They are these magical things in restaurants that make your mouth water with their creamy decadence and their complementary (and sometimes counterpointing) flavors that, as the Dude might say, "really bring the dish together."

Don't get me wrong. I've had successes with sauces. I once made a wonderful Oscar sauce (creamy crab topping for a grilled steak) that was utter perfection, as good as any I've ever had in a high-end steak house. But, the next time I tried to make the same sauce, it utterly failed. In the parlance of a real chef, I believe it "broke!"

I've always been afraid of sauces, which is part of the problem, and I have not spent much time learning the fine points. In fact, until recently I didn't really understand how to make a roux, which is the basis of most sauces. It always seemed so alien. You add flour to melted butter to create these globs of solid matter, and then somehow when you add the liquid in, it all becomes this wonderfully rich, creamy sauce. How in the world do all these disparate elements come together to make something so divine?

Then I watched Andrew Rea (of Basics with Babish) make what he called the "best turkey gravy of all time" (and it was!) on his Last Minute Thanksgiving special. I finally had the"Ah hah!" moment while watching him combine the heated stock to the roux a little at a time while stirring constantly. I realized at that moment that it all works similarly to making risotto (which I learned from another Basics with Babish episode). 

Even then, I have made mistakes because, you see, the proportions are critical. Get one thing wrong and it all breaks. Yes, you can fix a broken sauce, but I am still working on that particular skill as well. Sometimes, I just have to throw it all out and start over.

The Roux of Writing

So, you may be wondering, how does all of this relate to writing fiction? What is the roux of writing? For me, I sometimes find a special, roux-like sauce in the plotting done by certain authors. A wonderful combining of disparate plot elements and characters and story-lines that somehow come together to draw you into the book and sweep you along for a wild ride even though, early on, it all looks like a bunch of different pieces that will never combine into anything coherent.

Let me give you an example: The novel, Leviathan Awakes by James S.A. Corey, which is the first book in the set of eight science fiction novels that are the basis for the hit television series The Expanse, drops readers into a strange future world that they know nothing about. Here humanity works on and travels to many of the planets, moons, and asteroids in our own solar system.

This first "Expanse" novel has two main POV characters: Holden and Miller. Both men live and work in the asteroid belt and both have character flaws that become apparent as the story unfolds. Both characters are following threads of the same overarching plot, but neither even know the other, let alone that they are working toward similar (but not exactly the same) goals. In fact, Miller and Holden don't even meet until chapter 23! More than 40 percent of the way through the book. 

Miller and Holden are the butter and flour of this story. They are two wildly different pieces that you follow through separate adventures until they come together in a clump, waiting to be smoothed into a cohesive whole as the rest of the story unfolds.

I love this type of story. I enjoy following a story where not everything gets explained up front. This means that you, the reader, must deduce certain things from context as the story unfolds, which allows for surprises later on. This love of murky stories might have come from my early love of mysteries. I love when I get that "I knew it!" moment when my deductions were correct. And, sometimes I would get the "Oh. I get it now" moment instead when the big reveal happens. Of course, this assumes the writer was doing their job right and didn't leave gaping plot holes that broke the story. 

Another example of this in recent times was the HBO miniseries, The Watchmen. Set in the same world as the original graphic novel. this series takes place many years after the climax of the original source material and involves a different set of characters. There are many big mysteries in this series that the viewers must wait and watch to see how they unfold. Questions like: who is involved, which side is everyone on, why are things are happening the way they do and, sometimes, who the heck are some of these characters abounded in this series, especially in the first few episodes. I loved it. That was a complex sauce that looked like clumps of lumpy flour for a long time before the story started to come together. But come together it did!

Intricacies of Making the Sauce

I have tried this in my own writing with some degree of success. As with making sauces for my meals, I sometimes get it right and sometimes miss a bit. The toughest part for me is tamping down my urge to explain everything. This is something that does not come easy to me. I'm a chronic over-explainer (just ask my family).

I attempted this (fairly successfully, I believe) in my recent novel, Soulless Fury. The story has two main characters who, like Miller and Holden, don't meet until about a third of the way through the book.  I also have several other POV characters and, in fact, the novel starts from the POV of a fairly minor character.

As with making a roux, however, writing a novel with multiple, completely separate POVs, or where the story unfolds at a slower pace, or where the author doesn't explain every intricacy of setting, character and plot as soon as they are introduced, can be tricky. Here are a few ways to avoid pitfalls so you don't end up breaking your story.

Engage the Reader. A well-made sauce is rich, flavorful, and velvety. It delights your taste buds. If you're asking readers to come along with your characters for several chapters before they begin to understand what is happening in the story, you have to make it worthwhile. Engage readers with some strong action sequences, glimpses at the deeper mystery, sparkling dialog or descriptions. In short, give them a taste of the rich payoff they will receive if they stay until the end.

Know Your World. If you are spinning a complex yarn with multiple characters, exotic locales, and/or a complicated set of plots and subplots, it is pivotal that you know how that world works, who those characters are, what those locales look like, and how all the pieces interact with one another. You absolutely cannot wing this and expect the whole to stand together. You may want to keep your reader in the dark about certain things, but if you are in the dark about them you will end up with gaping plot holes that will break the story.

Provide Enough Context. Readers need some information about characters, plot, and locales to keep them grounded in the story. This is where the proportions of the roux become important. If you explain too much early on, the story can get bogged down in descriptions and nothing will ever happen. On the other hand, if you don't provide enough context, you run the real risk of losing the interest of your readers. Small bits and pieces added in at the right moments can go a long way. Make it feel natural, too. Don't force it. And never, ever, ever, use the phrase "As you know." If that character already knows this information, why is the other character telling them about it?

But Don't Overwhelm. the flip side of providing enough context is overwhelming readers with too much information. This is especially true (and all too easy a trap to fall into) when you are writing in fantasy or science fiction worlds. By their very nature, they are filled with strange creatures, places, and technology (or magic) that the readers won't understand. And then there are the names. Some authors just love to use long, fanciful names for their characters, which can make it nearly impossible to remember them later.

Example: I will admit that as much as I loved Leviathan Awakes, I got a bit lost early on as Holden and his eventual shipmates, Naomi, Alex, and Owen started on one ship, spent time on a smaller ship, and then got captured and held on a third ship, only to escape from that ship on the vessel that would, finally, become "their" ship, the Rocinante. Each of those ships had a name, but I couldn't tell you to this day, what they all were. 

Bring Everything Together 

This is the most critical piece. With a roux, it is the stock (or whatever liquid you use to turn the clumpy bits of buttery flour into a milky smooth sauce). For a novel, the secret ingredient is often the overarching plot or the disparate goals of the main characters that somehow align in the end and bring all the different strands of plots and subplots together in a mad rush to the climax. 

In my novel, Soulless Fury, one main character is chasing the other, who it turns out also is searching for a third character. (A character that isn't introduced until chapter 12!) When all three of these characters finally come together in chapter 24, they begin to realize how much they have in common even as the rest of the world and their individual backgrounds are driving them apart. They are then faced with the choice of working together or continuing to be adversaries. Their ultimate relationship — and the climax of the story — ends up falling somewhere in between in, what I hope, was a satisfyingly rich sauce.

Monday, March 1, 2021

What's For Supper?

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 5

I mentioned in the first part of this series that I have been the primary cook for our family of 5 for the past 20-plus years. Figuring we eat out, on average, about once per week (until this past year, obviously), that's more than 6,000 dinners I have planned and prepared since 2001!

On many days, I have a plan for supper early in the day or even the day before, and I get some meat out from the freezer to thaw early. I often plan ahead for big weekend meals when the meat needs extra time to thaw (hard to cook a roast the same day you pull it from the freezer).

But over the past 20 years, I can tell you that there were many days when I stared at the open freezer late in the afternoon hoping for inspiration to strike (and that said inspiration would involve something I could thaw in the microwave or cook from frozen).

I doubt I'm the only family cook out there who sometimes just doesn't want to cook on a particular day. There are plenty of days when you've been busy working around the house all day — especially during the heat of summer — and you just don't feel like standing at the chopping block and the stove for a couple hours at the end of a long day, especially if you don't already have a meal plan prepared.

I've never been the type of family cook who plans an entire week's worth of meals every Sunday. I prefer to be inspired. But after 6,000 meals, inspiration sometimes is hard to come by, and the drudgery of cooking day after day after day begins to wear on you. This is why family's eat out, I believe: To break up the monotony of the every day meal. 

This monotony has come into sharp focus this past year when our options for eating out became nonexistent for a long time. I got to the point where after we finished eating, I would ask the family, "So, what should we do for supper tomorrow night?" Having just cooked for two hours and seen my family devour my hard work in 15 minutes, the only thought in my head was, "I have to do this all over again tomorrow."

This, in a nutshell, is Writer's Block!

 Faced with a blank piece of paper (or blank screen in modern parlance), writers can find their mind becomes a blank as well. That's the classic version of writer's block, at any rate. It also can happen when you reach major turning points in your plot or when you realize that your characters have gone off script and you're unsure how to get them to come back to the plot. 

Basically, writer's block can happen anytime you reach a break in what you're writing and are unsure where to go next. Sure, there are other ways, times, and reasons that writer's block occurs but, in my experience, this is the most prevalent cause. You're staring at the freezer and have no idea what to make for supper that night. 

A detailed outline (a meal plan, if you will) can help you avoid writer's block. Knowing exactly what is supposed to happen next in the plot can reduce the number of times you get stuck and helps you forge ahead even when you don't feel inspired. Some writers, however, feel that detailed outlines stifle their creativity. And even for those who use outlines (as I have for most of my novels), there are still times when characters forge off on their own tangents and you have to find ways to bring them back to the plot or make the plot crash back down on them (which can be a lot of fun).

Other writers simply write at full speed, rushing to put words on the page while the ideas are fresh in their minds. They don't worry overly about typos, punctuation, or sentence structure. They don't preplan how to introduce characters or plot points. They don't spend time searching for the exact right word for every situation. They just write at a breakneck pace, trying to fill all the blank pages with words. These writers can do this because they know full well they will go back through this messy first draft one or more times again to clean up the structure, and improve the phrasing, wording, and pacing to weave the story into a cohesive whole.

I take a different approach. I started out in life as an editor before I became a writer, so it is almost impossible for me to write a messy copy. I edit and revise and alter everything as I am writing. I constantly reread a previous sentence or paragraph and make small — or even large — changes to it over and over until I am content with the finished product.

This process has actually helped me overcome writer's block over the years. I tend to start each day by reading the last scene I wrote the day before, making even more small revisions along the way because I can never quell my inner editor. But what this also does for me is put me back into the flow of the story, so when I am done revising yesterday's work, I can move right into the next scene or chapter because the ideas behind whatever plot point or piece of character development that had been driving me the day before is right there in my head pushing me forward as I write today's words.

However, I do still face the issues of fatigue and monotony — the whole "what's for supper tonight" problem. Writing a novels (especially under a deadline) are a daily grind. You say, I have three months to pump out 90,000 words. That's 30,000 per month, about 1,000 per day, or 7,500 per week.

After a while, even for the most disciplined authors, this daily or weekly tally can become a crushing grind, a weight around your neck that starts to drag your creativity down into a dark pit. Writer's block.

So, what do you do? Well, waiting for inspiration is just about the worst idea. If you have a deadline, the longer you wait for inspiration to hit the more behind you will get and the heavier that weight will feel around your neck. This is a spiraling road that only ever leads downward.

During 2020, I contracted to write two novels and a short story by June. Then the pandemic hit. I had to write every day. I had to hit those daily/weekly milestones every week for six months. I had to do all of this despite the stress of everything going on around us in the world, despite my normally quiet home turning into a home office for three more people who were sheltering in place with me.

During that time, I found the best way for me to overcome the weight of the grind was to simply "put my butt in the chair and start writing!" I didn't always want to. I didn't always feel inspired. But I did it anyway. I forced myself to write one sentence and then another and then another. Eventually, the inspiration would hit and the words would start to flow and sing. Then, once the inspiration was flowing, I would go back to the day's first few sentences and improve them if needed.

I thought about this the other day while standing in front of the freezer waiting for dinner inspirations to hit me. So, I just reached in and grabbed some frozen, Impossible burger patties, figuring we would simply have a burger and fries night

But then something happened. Once I had made that one decision (choosing burgers over any other meat) — once I had decided to sit my butt down and force my way through the daily grind of cooking supper — that decision freed up my mind and allowed the inspiration to flow. Instead of veggie burgers and fries, that night, I made a tasty Mediterranean variation on Salisbury steak using a homemade shawarma marinade in place of beef gravy. It was a huge success, which came from pushing through my, almost daily lately, cooking block.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mise en Place

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 4

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the tools you need to cook or write. This week, I want to talk about prep time. If you watch any cooking videos on Netflix and YouTube (My two favorites are Binging with Babish on YouTube and  The Chef Show on Netflix) you will see chefs routinely have all the ingredients they need for a recipe right at hand, often in the exact amounts and separated into cute, little bowls or ramekins.

This is called “mise en place,” which is a fancy French term (like a lot of cooking terms) that means “everything in its place.” Obviously, this beautiful presentation of prepared ingredients is great for videos because it makes the cooking appear effortless and speeds up the process on camera (no need to measure and pour when you can simply pour). But, professional chefs do spend time on preparation prior to cooking. (Well, they have a staff of cooks to do that, but you get the point.) And you can even purchase “mise en place” containers for your kitchen.

Even if you don't have a professional set of specialty bowls to hold all your ingredients, You still need to have things like salt, pepper, and other spices easily at hand while preparing a meal because recipes often call for specific amounts at precise times during the cooking process. You also need to cut up any aromatics (onions, carrots, celery, etc.) ahead of time so you don't have to take time away from stirring a tricky sauce to find and dice the next set of ingredients. 

I actually do the whole mise en place set up when making pizza at home. I dice up onions, olives, mushrooms, and peppers, cook and crumble bacon and sausage ahead of time, chop spinach and, sometimes (if I don't have leftover sauce in the fridge), prepare some marinara. I do all of this well before I start making pizzas. So, while my family sees pizza as a quick meal, there is a whole lot of prep that goes into making that “fast food” fast.

I do all this prep specifically because it allows me to build the pizzas quickly, just like at my favorite pizza chain, Mod Pizza. And, really, any time I am making a sauce or soup or anything that requires more ingredients than just simple, dried herbs, I do all the prep first (and build in the prep time needed to my meal preparation time estimate). If I want to put a family meal on the table at 7 p.m., I generally start chopping onions around 5 p.m. (Note: I use a lot more onions now than I ever used to before I started watching cooking shows.)

From a cooking standpoint, this all makes sense, right? You need to have everything ready to go once you light the stove so you don't end up scorching the pan while you chop the next ingredient. That's not to say you cant improvise in the middle of making a dish and go search your spice drawer for something to add a little pizazz. I do this all the time (and I will talk about improvisation in a future blog). But, in general, I think we can all agree it is better to prepare your ingredients ahead of time.

Well, guess what? The same goes for your writing. Surprise! Okay, I'm sure no one is all that astounded by this revelation. If you want your writing to have any depth beyond the words on the page, any lasting legacy beyond the rising and falling action in the plot, you need to spend some time on research, and not simply to get your facts right.

In fact, the best writers spend a great deal of time on research before writing a single word. Robert J. Sawyer, a highly successful writer friend of mine, does more research before writing than any author I know. I asked him how much time he spent researching Robert Oppenheimer and the events surrounding the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War 2 before he wrote The Oppenheimer Alternative

Rob told me he spent an entire year doing research before writing a lick of the novel. He lists 132 books in the bibliography at the back of the novel that he used as research. Rob says he read about half of those cover-to-cover and skimmed the rest or used them as references materials while writing.

Now, Rob is a successful author who can afford to spend a year on research, but that doesn't mean the rest of us should skimp on our preparations. The fiction I write is mostly set in other people's worlds. That doesn't mean all my work is done for me, though. I must read what has been written about the characters I am using so they feel right to readers. I need to research the worlds I am writing in so I don't make mistakes when describing places that have appeared elsewhere. Whenever possible, I try to do the bulk of this research before I start writing. 

So, what kind of preparations do you need make before writing? Let's take a quick look at some of the “ingredients” you need to prepare before you begin writing your next story.

Plot

Obviously, you need to know what your story is about before you write it, but there is more going on here than that, and may levels of preparation. I often write detailed outlines before I start on a novel. but other authors find chapter-by-chapter outlines too constraining. I actually wrote Strangled by Death, my upcoming Kolchak: The Night Stalker novel, with only a rudimentary outline, and this process can be very freeing. 

However, at the very least, most authors will lay out a plot structure before just diving in. You want to know where the action will rise and fall so you can build the tension effectively from beginning to end. The three-act structure isn't just a cliche in writing, it's a useful tool for telling compelling stories.

Characters

Again, this is a fairly obvious ingredient. But this is an area where lack of preparation can really doom a story. If your characters lack dimension and depth because you failed to put in the time to flesh them out, they won't pop off the page. Not only won't they be memorable, but readers will fail to connect with them at all. They will become little more than stick figures you move around to push the plot forward, and it will show.

So, before you write, get to know your characters. Delve into their personal histories, find out how they think, what they like and hate, how they speak, and how they react when under pressure.And, if you create a minor character while writing who is there to do more than just move the plot along, take the story off the burner for a moment and take some time to prepare a backstory or character study of that figure before you move on.

Setting

Preparing the right setting for your story is just as important as creating strong characters. If you're writing a story set in the real world, setting the story in a big city versus a small town makes a statement. Setting it in Chicago versus Seattle makes a statement. Setting it in Europe or Asia or South America makes it a very different story than setting it in America. 

Then, once you choose the setting, you MUST put in the work to make sure you get that setting right. If you're creating a fantasy or science fiction world, you need to know how the realities of that world work. Is there magic? How does it function? Is there technology? How does it affect the world and the people in it? Many fantasy novelists spend years creating their worlds before they even start writing. And don't think you're off the hook by setting the story in the real world. If you get the names of streets wrong or don't understand the geography of the setting, you will ruin the story for anyone who knows that locale.

History

Much of this category could be covered under character and location. You need to know and understand the history of these elements just as deeply as you know their present. For example, if you set a story that turns on racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama you absolutely need to know how the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 impacted the civil rights movement.

Even in fictional settings, however, history is an important element of a story. As I mentioned in location above, you will need to spend time creating the history of the fictional setting for your story, and know how it impacts the current situation where you have placed your characters. If you don't spend time researching or creating this history, the world of your story may feel hollow or fake and could fall apart on close inspection.

One last piece of advice about history, that I believe I first learned from Tracy Hickman at a panel on world building. He said that your world must work. It must function for the people living in it. It also should be basically at peace prior to the beginning of your story (at least on the surface). Your story begins the moment something changes that disrupts the status quo.

Repercussions

If you are writing a story where the disruption that kicks off the plot affects a lot more people than just the main characters, you will also want to spend time researching the impact that this disruption will have on your setting, your characters, and even your plot. 

Let me provide an example. In one of my favorite Robert J. Sawyer novels, The Terminal Experiment, the main character accidentally invents a device that can detect the soul when it leaves the body. The story itself, is about the personal journey of Dr. Peter Hobson after the existence of this device (and proof of the human soul) goes public. But, throughout the book, Rob provides glimpses of the repercussions of this hugely impactful event on the world around the main character.

On a more personal level, spending time before you start writing considering how the events of the story will impact the main character — how those repercussions and ramifications will weigh on the character and, potentially, change the character — will make your character's story more impactful for the reader.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Of Side Dishes and Subplots

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 3

I spend a decent amount of time thinking about what side dishes I will prepare to accompany the main course of a meal. As mentioned earlier in this series, I grew up in the Midwest, so was (and still am) a big fan of meat and potatoes dinners, and my early dinners often were variations on this theme.

Some things just go together, right? Steak and baked potatoes. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Pot roast with carrot and potato wedges cooked in the pot. 

This cadence went further, with fish and rice, fried chicken and corn on the cob, spaghetti and meatballs (and garlic bread), and, of course, one of our big favorites (to say anyway, because it's fun) — Pork Chops and Applesauce. (Try saying that like you're bugs bunny pretending to be a gangster. Trust me, it's hilarious.)

Over the years, I have tried to break out of the tried-and-true side dish combos to find meals that are fun, filling, and flavorful. I learned how to make risotto as well as rice. I found and created recipes for scalloped potatoes instead of making them from a box. I stocked my fridge with veggies beyond iceberg lettuce and carrots to make salads with multi-layered flavors. And I tried out different ways to cook vegetables, like roasting, steaming, and (our favorite) sautéing with shallots.

So, when the question, "What's for dinner?" comes up, I invariably find myself standing in front of the freezer looking at my choices. I can't settle on a main dish until I find the right set of side dishes to serve with it, side dishes that complement the main dish, work well alongside it and add to its flavor instead of fighting those flavors.

One day, recently, while standing in front of the freezer, I realized that I do the same thing when I  craft subplots to add to a story. It occurred to me that subplots and side dishes are nearly identical in form and function in their separate arenas. 

So, let me go through a few key similarities between subplots and side dishes, as I see them, and a couple points to consider when adding them to your main plots and main dishes.

Fill the Plate

One of the main things that both subplots and side dishes do is to help fill your plate. Writers can't always fill an entire 300-page novel with a single plot (and for the reasons listed below, most don't want to). Subplots help fill the pages of the book. They are extra little stories being told alongside the main story, and as such, need a beginning, middle, and end, as well as some growth for the characters involved in that plot.

Side dishes are exactly the same. Plating is important to the proper presentation of a meal, and unless you are in what we used to call "hoity-toity" restaurants that put a single bean in the middle of a plate with a splash of sauce, you need more than one course to fill the plate. That's where the side dishes come in.

Support and Reflect

A subplot's real main job, though, is to support the main plot and, often, to act as a mirror to shine a light on the themes and action happening in the main plot. For example, in my short story, Banner-Jarl, in the Uprising anthology, I tell two stories simultaneously, one in the present and one in the past. In the main, present-day story, the main character, Grendl (a bounty hunter) is chasing a bounty through the Underhive. In the sublot, set in the past, It is Grendl who is being chased as he tries to escape to the Underhive.

Side dishes also need to support and reflect their main dishes. This is one reason why sauces are made using the same pan used to brown the meat, so you can capture the fond (meat crust baked onto the pan after browning) into the flavors of the sauce. Sweet side dishes (like applesauce for pork, pineapple chunks served with ham, and cranberry sauce with turkey) provide a nice mirror to the savory aspects of the main dish.

Provide a Break

 Another way to use a subplot is as a break from the main action. This can be done to provide a breather for the reader after a particularly emotional scene or to heighten the tension after a cliffhanger. Switching to the subplot for a scene or a chapter while the main character's life hangs in the balance is a great way to keep readers turning pages. Bringing in your comic relief character to provide some light humor after a particularly heavy scene filled with intense emotions gives both the reader and the characters a little space to breathe before you head back to the main plot.

This works almost identically for side dishes. A mouthful of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes (or mashed butternut squash, which we really love now) in between tearing bits of spicy barbecued beef from massive ribs gives your mouth and taste buds a break. Cold sides like coleslaw, salad, fruit cups provide a nice break from steaming-hot mouthfuls of fried chicken or fish. A nice, light, steamed vegetable like broccoli pairs well with a dense, inch-thick steak.

Something for Everyone

Another wonderful benefit of having subplots in your stories and side dishes on the table, is that they help you provide something for every palate. What happens if you reader doesn't like the characters in your main plot? They stop reading, that's what. But if you have side characters in there that provide different outlooks on life, have different issues than the main character, are different ages, genders, backgrounds, etc., you have a better chance of finding some commonality with various readers so they find something they like in your story.

This goes for side dishes as well. Not a big fan of the spice in the barbecue rub, well fill up on corn and coleslaw. Don't really like brussel sprouts? Well, take a second helping of roasted potatoes instead. This is one reason, I like making roasted vegetables. For one thing, it's a great way to cook brussel sprouts. But, also, if you're roasting carrots, potatoes, and cauliflower along with the sprouts, there's something in there that almost everyone will like.

Don't Overshadow

One last point to consider about how subplots and side dishes are similar is that you never want them to overshadow your main plot/main dish. The star of the show is the main dish or plotline. That's what sells the book. That's what you tell your family is for dinner. You don't say we're having brussel sprouts for dinner with a side of steak. And you don't describe "Much Ado About Nothing" as the story of some bumbling cops in Verona.

Like a side dish, which takes up only a single section of the plate, a good subplot only occupies a fraction of the story (probably less than one-quarter at most). If your subplot starts taking over the main plot, it may be time to take a look at what story you are writing and make some changes. If that sub plot is more interesting and the characters more alive than your main plot, consider switching the emphasis of the story to the subplot. If you've done your job and the two plots are complementing and/or mirroring one another, this should work just fine, although it might be a tough sell to your editor and publisher if they were expecting a story about the main character.

Another way that subplots and side dishes can overshadow, though, is in quality and flavor. If your subplot is way more interesting than your main plot, you need to do something to spice up your main plot. If your side dish is the star of the plate, then you may not have spent enough time making sure the main dish is up to the quality that your diners are expecting.

Subplot/Side Dish Synergy

One important point to consider when adding a subplot to your story or choosing a side dish for a meal is how they work with, add to, or complement the main dish/plot. Obviously, you don't want to detract from the overall enjoyment of the meal or story by adding something unexpected. While sweet and sour sauce works because of the combination of flavors, A highly tangy, acidic side dish like a salad with strong onions and peppers might not be the best choice to put with a rack of sweet, Carolina barbecue ribs.

And, yes, comic relief can help cut the tension of a highly emotional scene. One of my favorite uses of this is in Hamilton when they cut to Jefferson saying, "Can we get back to politics now?" immediately after the emotional scenes surrounding the death of Hamilton's son, Phillip. That being said, you won't often see a dramatic main story interspersed with a subplot that is all comedy all the time. 

Instead, you want the two stories to play off one another, delve into the same themes (often from different angles), and even hit high points and low points together as the two stories progress throughout the book. In my novel, Soulless Fury, two almost identically important stories are happening at the same time as one character is chasing the other. The viewpoint switches back and forth and both characters suffer losses during their separate stories. These happen right before I bring the two characters together, so they are, separately, at similar points in their story arcs when the confrontation occurs.

This dovetailing of plot and sublot is one of the most exciting uses of the subplot. How often have you read a story where the character arc in the subplot hits a climax near the end of the book and that minor character — because of where they are in their arc at that moment in time — has some small but dramatic impact on the story of the main character? That is subplot synergy at its best.

In the world of side dishes, I can't think of any better example of this synergy than garlic bread. It's savory, spicy with the same spices found in the spaghetti sauce, crispy where the spaghetti is soft, and — best of all — can be used to soak up extra sauce from your plate or as a base for pouring sauce on top to make a pizza later on.