Ties that Bind: Do I repeat myself?

WordItOut-word-cloud-2111782I discovered yet another layer of revision by making a “word cloud” from my manuscript. I simply pasted my entire manuscript into the tool at WordItOut. You can easily see my overuse of certain words.

I’ve spent the last two mornings removing about half of my uses of know. Only a little tedious. I found most of them were in dialogue that I thought sounded conversational, but was merely boring, you know? Now, maybe I’ll just do that with all the rest.

Thanks to Joan Dempsey over at Revise With Confidence for the link and the insights.

Have you tried this with your writing? What did you learn?

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Ties that Bind: How friends challenged me to write a (better) novel

knot on fingerBless their hearts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year. 

That was in 2008.

Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”

Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!

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The founder of Lone Mountain Writers, Marilee Swirzcek

I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.

Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.

Here’s what I heard instead:

  • Beautiful writing, but where’s the story?”
  • “What does your protagonist want and what are the stakes?”
  • “Where is the conflict, the drama?
  • “Who is the POV character? And why does it seem to switch in the middle of this paragraph?

Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.

Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.

They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on a long ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.

What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.

In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.

So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.

Now, where’s my sunscreen?

Claire’s one really good recipe

Another in the sometime series from “Annie Cooper’s Recipe Scrapbook.” The foods are all mentioned in my still-in-heavy-rewrite novel. Claire holds a tender spot in her heart for this recipe and for one particular member of the family it came from. Enjoy!


Butternut Squash with Apples

from the kitchen of Claire Jordan

Auntie Claire isn’t much of a cook and I was surprised when Mom told me this favorite fall recipe was hers. When I asked Auntie Claire about its origin, she got a faraway look in her eyes and said it came from the mother of an old college friend. Somehow I got the feeling that there was more to the story.

  •  About 1 ½ pounds butternut squash, peeled and chopped.  About 5 cups. Many produce departments now carry peeled and chopped squash.
  • 4 medium tart apples, chopped.
  • ½ cup dried cranberries, cherries, raisins, or combination
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
  • 1 ½ tsp. grated fresh ginger or 1 Tbsp. ground ginger
  • ½ tsp. salt (or more to taste)
  • 1/8 tsp. black (or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup butter or margarine

Directions: In a slow-cooker combine all ingredients and stir. Cover and cook on low setting for 3-4 hours or on high for 1 ½ hours.

Some lighter reading, now and then…

My Best Friend's Girl by [Koomson, Dorothy]        Landline: A Novel by [Rowell, Rainbow]

 

Both these books feature young women, both focused on their successful careers, but with personal lives that are a bit of a mess. One is unmarried and the other married with two little girls. Both books demonstrate the power of even lighter fiction to show us what is true about love, sacrifice, friendship, trust, jealousy, and regret. You know, the big stuff.  And both allow characters to hear loved one’s voices from the past.

In My Best Friend’s Girl, BFFs Kamryn and Adele become understandably and bitterly estranged when Kamryn discovers that Adele’s daughter Tegan, was fathered by Kamryn’s fiancé. After years of silence between them, Adele dies but not before exacting a promise from Kamryn that she will care for and adopt now five-year-old Tegan. Kamryn’s life and priorities are turned upside down when motherhood is thrust upon her, a role she never aspired to. That role is made even more difficult by grief. Letters from Adele add a poignant touch to this angst-y but heartwarming story.

To her ex, Kamryn says:

“You’re the only person on earth I’d wanted to have a child with, and you did it with someone else. Someone I loved. That’s why I had to leave. I couldn’t stay when you’d made a baby, a new life, with someone else.”

And about Tegan:

“At least she knew she had me. I wasn’t her mum, but I was there.”

In Landline, the voice from the past arrives via an old yellow trimline phone found in the childhood bedroom of Georgie, a television comedy writer in Los Angeles and married mother of two. Because of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to finally get the show she and her writing partner (and too-handsome best friend, Seth) have dreamed about since college, she stays behind when her husband Neal and girls go to Omaha for Christmas. Georgie’s mother believes that Neal has left Georgie, which begins a cycle of self-doubt. Had she been a neglectful wife and mother? Had Neal really left her? With her cellphone dead, she calls Neal on the landline and the Neal who picks up is the Neal she fell in love with fifteen years ago. Before marriage, before children. She’s careful not to break the spell throughout a week as she and Neal talk every night on that old yellow phone. This Neal still loves her.

“Georgie,” he said. “I love you. I love you more than I hate everything else. We’ll make our own enough–will you marry me?”

“Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend.”

These two books appealed to me because I wanted to explore the concept of friendship in Women’s Fiction. How friends support each other and how far they’ll go to fulfill a promise or commitment is compelling, but so is the push and pull between those friendships and all our important relationships–marriage, parenthood, even work. The novel I’m working on focuses on some of those elements and I wanted to see how these authors handled them. I was not disappointed.

Novel oatmeal camping cake

Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cake with Broiled Topping

Oatmeal Cake (a.k.a. Camping Cake)

from the kitchen of Fran McCormack and Libby McCormack Cooper

I’m not sure where the original came from, but Mom called it “Oatmeal Cake.” My girls call it “Camping Cake” since we always took it camping. Mom made it in an aluminum pan with a sliding lid, like the one pictured below, so even on camping trips it stayed wonderfully moist and un-squashed. No small feat. It is definitely not figure-friendly, but it does contain oatmeal, so perhaps Mom thought it qualified as healthy for that reason alone. Note: If you leave the knife in the pan, the cake seems to disappear by inches, not whole slices. Just sayin’.

Vintage “Maid of Honor” pan, available at thrift stores, garage sales, and ebay. Sorry, but no, mine is not for sale.

 

Cake:

1 cup oats

1 ½ cup hot water

½ cup butter or margarine

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2 unbeaten eggs

1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. salt

  1. Pour water over oats. Set aside.
  2. Cream butter sugars and eggs until smooth
  3. Add dry ingredients. Add oatmeal last. Beat well.
  4. Pour into greased 9×12 pan.
  5. Bake 30 min. @ 350

Broiled Icing:

¾ cube of butter

1 T. milk

¾ cup brown sugar

1 ½ cup coconut

1 cup chopped walnuts, pecans, or almonds

  1. Melt butter in saucepan and add sugar
  2. Cook one minute.
  3. Add coconut & nuts.
  4. Spread on warm cake & broil. Watch closely!
  5. Cool completely before serving or covering.

    20160611_092127.jpg
    This one is ready to go!

Love in the time of prejudice

lover1The Japanese Lover: A Novel

Fans of Isabel Allende will enjoy this sweeping story of forbidden love. Two women meet at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay area. Both are immigrants, but Alma was sent to the US during WWII by her Polish-Jewish parents to live with wealthy relatives. Irina is a young, frightened employee of Lark House from Moldova. Each has secrets that define them, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the large cast of characters here. Little by little, their secrets are revealed, making me turn pages long past my bedtime.
The overarching and lifelong secret love affair of Alma and the Japanese gardener, Ichimei, is set against the backdrop of nearly every twentieth century cultural and historic phenomena. The Holocaust. The internment of the Japanese-Americans in the US. Prejudice in all its forms. Aging and end-of-life issues. Love and sexuality. AIDS. All are explored with Allende’s trademark sensuous (often sensual) writing, not to mention her humanity and heart.

To give you a taste, here’s what Alma’s husband says about their unusual but tender marriage:

“There are always some necessary lies and omissions, just as there are truths it’s better to keep quiet about.”

Alma says this about her beloved Ichimei:

“Love and desire for him scorched her skin; she wanted to stretch her hands out across the table and touch him, draw closer, bury her nose in his neck and confirm it still smelled of earth and herbs…”

And here’s what Ichimei says about dying:

“If I were going to die in the next three days, what would I do during that time? Nothing! I would empty myself of everything but love.”

In the end, this is a sweet, sad, passionate love story–a romance–between two people who couldn’t be together in this world. It left me hoping that they would be able to find and love each other in the next.

 

 

Sylvia’s Chicken Salad

In Sylvia’s generation, most women didn’t work outside the home. She did. As a single mother, she had to. Nonetheless, she always made it look easy. Sylvia may have appeared serene, but she was paddling like mad beneath the surface.Waldorf-Chicken-Salad-3_thumb

Cashew Chicken Salad

From the kitchen of Sylvia Jordan

This is a lovely salad served on a bed of lettuce or croissants as a sandwich. Make it in the morning and let it chill while you are getting yourself and the house ready for company. 


 

1 whole cooked chicken, cooled

3-4 cups seedless grapes, halved

4 stalks celery, chopped

4 green onions, chopped

1 cup cashews, coarsely chopped

1/8 tsp. tarragon

3/4 tsp. celery seed

1/2 tsp. paprika

1/8 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups mayonnaise (substitute some plain yogurt for part, if desired)

  1.  Pull all the meat off the whole chicken. Cut into ½ to 1 inch chunks. Place into a large bowl.
  2. Add celery, onions,  grapes, and cashews to the bowl.
  3. Add in mayo and seasonings. Mix well.
  4. Cover and chill at least an hour before serving.

 

chicken-salad-recipe-with-grapes-fi

French Toast Casserole

Lighter Fruitier French Toast Casserole

From the kitchen of Libby McCormack Cooper

I hope the directions are clear and accurate enough. I can’t remember where the original came from, but I’ve adapted it and made it so often, I don’t even follow a recipe any longer.  This is essentially bread pudding and many recipes I’ve seen call for half & half, but seriously, this recipe doesn’t need it. So if you’re watching your weight (like me, usually) here is a pretty painless place to cut back on fat.  Whole grain bread and Eggbeaters can make this not only tasty but also a pretty healthy dish.  And of course, you can use other fruit, alone or in any combination you fancy.


2 cups milk (skim or 2% works just fine)

3 whole eggs (or 3/4 cup EggBeaters)

1 tsp each, vanilla and almond extract

12 slices good, sturdy bread, cubed (don’t tell, but here’s a good place to sneak in whole grain bread)

2 tablespoons butter, melted and divided

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, divided

2 cups fresh raspberries, blueberries, or other fruit, divided

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup sliced almonds or chopped pecans, optional

 

  1. Preheat oven to 400 and coat a 9×13 pan with cooking spray.
  2. In small bowl combine milk, and eggs. Beat until blended.
  3. Layer half of the bread in bottom of the baking dish. Drizzle 1 Tbsp. of the melted butter over bread. Cover with half of the fruit. Sprinkle with half of the sugar.
  4. Repeat with the rest of the bread. Top with the other half of butter and remaining fruit.
  5. Pour the milk and egg mixture over all. Top off with the rest of the sugar. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nuts. Cover with foil.
  6. You can now refrigerate overnight if you like. Just be sure to let it sit out on the counter while the oven is heating up in the morning.
  7. Bake covered for 25 min. Uncover and bake for an additional 10 or 15 min. Serves 6 to 8.

Novel Tamale Pie

Why novel? Because the cornmeal is mixed in, not made into cornbread batter and spread on top. Well, that and the fact that this food memory comes from one of the characters in my novel.

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Tamale Pie

From the kitchen of Libby McCormack Cooper

While this wasn’t necessarily my favorite thing when I was growing, it now definitely qualifies as comfort food. I’ve adapted it a bit here–using Rotele tomatoes makes up for other seasoning–but it’s still pretty much as my mom made it. We like it topped with a little sour cream and served on a bed of shredded lettuce. Mom served it with a wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with a dollop of mayo that she called a “salad.” Times and food tastes have changed.

1 pound ground beef or turkey

1 small yellow or white onion, chopped

1 large can of diced tomatoes, with liquid

1 regular can of Rotele tomatoes with the added chilies, with liquid

1 regular can of corn, with liquid

1 regular can of whole or sliced large black olives, drained

yellow cornmeal (approximately ¾ to 1 cup)

1 cup or more shredded cheddar

  1. Brown the meat with onion. Drain.
  2. Add the contents of all the cans. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
  3. Start sprinkling corn meal in the while stirring. Just add in small amounts until the mixture thickens and the boil bubbles make a very distinctive pfff sound.  There is no exact measurement for this. Sorry. As soon as it pfffs, remove from heat.
  4. Grease or spray a 9×13 baking pan. Scoop the mixture in and smooth it. Or if you are using an ovenproof skillet, you can save washing up an extra pan.
  5. Sprinkle top generously with cheese.
  6. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes. It does not have to bake long because it is already hot.

 

 

Legendary Scones

 

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, another scrapbook page from Annie.

 Scones
from the kitchen of Libby McCormack Cooper

These are so easy to make, especially if you have a stand mixer. I made them every year for St. Patrick’s Day at school. With only half a stick of butter for a big batch, they are pretty low in fat, if you worry about such things. And people tell me they have magical healing qualities so are the perfect gift to take to an ailing friend.


4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1/4 tsp salt
4 Tbsp. butter
1 cup raisins
1 3/4 cup buttermilk (or milk soured with 2 Tbsp. vinegar or lemon juice)

  1. Preheat oven to 400.
  2. Mix dry ingredients. Cut in butter. Add raisins. Add milk and egg. Mix until dough forms.
  3. Knead 2-3 minutes on floured board. Divide dough in half. Pat each half into a flat circle, about 12 inches across.
  4. Cut each circle into 12-16 wedges. This is the shape my grandmother made her scones. At this point you can sprinkle them with course sugar, such as Demerara, if you like.
  5. Bake 10 minutes on lightly greased or sprayed cookie sheet. As soon as they are cool, place them in a zippered plastic bag. Serve with marmalade, raspberry jam or lemon curd.

Variations: Raisins can be replaced with currents, dried cranberries, or other fruit. The cranberries work especially well if you substitute a little orange juice for some of the liquid and add a bit of grated orange peel. I’ve also added nuts or chocolate chips from time to time.

scone cranberry