Oct 01

Embracing Comfort Food

photo of home-made chicken fingers

My kids’ new favorite meal: Home-made chicken fingers

I’m a foodie. I love food and, on more than a special-occasion basis, I like fancy food. While my kids are good eaters, sometimes they get tired of my chutneys and sauces and garnishes and just want plain old comfort food.

Between my insane aggressive writing schedule and the kids’ after school activities, we need quick (<30 minutes to prepare) meals 3-4 nights a week. And I can't make every. single. meal. in the slow-cooker, no matter how much I might like to.

Enter exhibit A: healthy, home-made (even gluten-free!) chicken fingers. My kids' new favorite meal.

Ingredients:
4 chicken breasts, sliced into 1-inch wide strips
2 egg whites, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt
2/3 c fine-ground cornmeal (I’ve heard crushed cornflakes work too!)
herbs & spices

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 225C (450F).
  2. Pour the cornmeal into a wide shallow bowl and season heavily with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and whatever spices go with the rest of your meal. Try taco seasoning, italian herbs, cumin, smoked paprika (not all at once!), or whatever your kids like. Mix thoroughly. You want to be able to see spices in the cornmeal mix. If you can’t, you haven’t added enough!
  3. Dip chicken strips in egg white.
  4. Dredge them in the cornmeal mixture, making sure every bit of the chicken is evenly coated.
  5. Arrange on a baking tray so that the chicken strips don’t touch.
  6. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until chicken is cooked to the internal temperature you prefer.
  7. Cook veggies & starches while chicken bakes. In the picture above, I made a veggie pilaf with quick-cooking brown rice, and kale salad.
  8. Serve with ranch, ketchup, or whatever sauce your munchkins love.

Sep 29

Revising by broad sweep

Last week, I wrote about how I making a plan for revision so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of edits that need to be made across a whole manuscript. And, in a stroke of cosmic awesomesauce, John Green also shared a few thoughts on revision that are worth a listen.

So much of revision is manuscript-specific that it’s hard to put together a how-to list for the fine-tuning. But there are definitely some broad sweeps that you can do to fix easy problems. Find & Replace can be your friend, especially when you’re feeling fried and just need something easier to tackle than the ephemeral “voice” or “pacing” or “character.”

I decided to seek out what other writers have to say about these broad sweeps and to put together a laundry list of checks that I can reuse each time I’m editing. Then I realized (with the help of one of my critique partners) that this information might be useful to others as well.

Here’s my list of Find & Replace checks I ran on my manuscript to get it ready for submission to agents. This doesn’t replace incorporating critique partner feedback on things like character, pacing, and plot. Nor does it replace a good copy-edit. But it does cut word count and tighten prose almost by magic. This checklist helped me cut 2,400 words from a 63,400 word manuscript and took about a week of almost full-time work to complete. Read the rest of this entry »

Sep 23

I Read Banned Books

September 21-27 is Banned Books Week in the United States. Wait a minute, I hear you say, how can book be banned in the country whose Bill of Rights is held up as a model for the rest of the world? Many Americans ask that same question.

The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Only three little words in that very-long sentence apply here (and no, I won’t be commenting upon other pieces of this amendment in this post, although there is much that could be said): freedom of speech. And, to be fair, I don’t think Congress has ever banned a book or passed a law that would ban a book. In most cases, books seem to be banned by school administrators or removed from curricula or library shelves for a variety of reasons ranging from obscenity to sexual content to social issues that they’d rather not address with their students.

All of that might seem reasonable, if not for the books in question. I could almost, almost understand To Kill a Mockingbird being controversial when it was first published in 1960. It talks about racism and justice in ways that were considered groundbreaking on one side of the equality movement and heretical on the other. But when I started poking around yesterday, I learned from the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books list that To Kill a Mockingbird was banned as recently as 2011 for containing “racism.”

There are so many other books I could mention here from Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being banned for “homosexual content” and questionable religious content (apparently folks have missed the freedom of religion clause in addition to freedom of speech) to Judy Blume’s books being banned for honest portrayals of adolescent sexuality, to The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison being banned for some of the same misguided reasons as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. But there’s actually a great list of banned books on Banned Books Week’s site.

But I just keep going back to banning the too-few books that actually try to talk about race for containing “racism.” There’s a huge movement underway to increase the diversity in the publishing industry. That diversity extends beyond racial diversity to include diversity in sexual orientation and also characters who have disabilities. It began as a reaction to the announcement of an all-white, all-male panel as part of BEA’s BookCon this past spring, but #WeNeedDiverseBooks has spread beyond that, in part because of the increasing tension in the United States over marriage equality and police violence against black Americans and elsewhere over similar issues.

Diversity in YA put together a great post about how banning books squelches this diversity because the majority of banned books are ones that are written by minorities or written about them. And heaven forbid minorities speak out about this issue. When UK’s children’s laureate Malorie Blackman did so, bigots heaped abuse and threats on her for speaking up. ┬áIn a society when we’re already marginalizing so many people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or socio-economic group, can we really afford to continue banning books that speak for these very people?

The answer is no. We cannot. Ultimately, diversity in publishing is not a matter just for writers or publishers to address. The works of art that we as a society produce reflect our hopes, our beliefs, and our identities as individuals and as a nation. Likewise the works of art that we choose to censor reflect our fears and our tight-as-ever grip on status quo.

Sep 22

On Revision…

A quick check-in on Google returns an immense list of articles focused on setting and achieving daily writing goals. All that drafting is great, and necessary, and leads to that beautiful feeling called flow (I like what Mike Monday has to say about flow here). Flow makes my blood pump like I’ve just finished a 10k, makes my fist pump like I just nestled the football right in the corner of the goal, and yes, sometimes makes me sing DeeeLite out loud.

But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I could get stuck in endless drafting and never take the next step: revision. Because come on, revision stinks. It’s not as much fun as drafting a shiny new story and it’s HARD. What if I get two sets of critique partner feedback making polar opposite suggestions (happens all the time!)? But I’m afraid to lose momentum now that I’ve got that hard-won daily writing habit ingrained into my routine! What if there really is not solution to the impossible plot problem?

These fears and more whirled through my head at the beginning of the year. Having just completed the first draft of my first-ever children’s story, I was ecstatic. I did a quick round of edits on spelling, passive voice, adverbs, plot holes, and other minor consistency issues and sent the draft to everyone I knew (oh my, how I wish I hadn’t).

Then I sat, stumped, for weeks, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get this draft from rough to polished. And because I’d never really done it before, I couldn’t come up with an answer. So I signed up for a “revise your novel” online course and began the arduous task of identifying what needed to be improved. I got the perfect mix of feedback and encouragement and even met a couple of critique partners in the process, which was huge for me.

What surfaced was the need for a bigger type of revision than I’ve ever undertaken–a change in both point of view (POV) and tense. As soon as I rewrote the first chapter in first-person present, I knew I’d found the elusive voice of the story. That didn’t stop me from wallowing for a couple months, griping about the huge task before me and feeling paralyzed any time I sat down in front of my manuscript and tried to write.

I let myself take a break, started doodling on some flash fiction pieces and ideas for a new series of middle-grade novels, and basically didn’t touch the book for almost three months. Then, when I had the space I needed to return to it, I went all project-management on the thing. Because the truth is that creating goals when you’re revising is even harder than when you’re drafting. When I’m drafting, I race through my day watching my little Scrivener status bar turn from red to orange to yellow to (hooray!) green as I reach my target. But what about during revision? How do you track that? How do you give yourself milestones to check off?

Here’s what I came up with and I hope it spares someone out there the paralysis and fear I went through before I figured it out:

  • Choose a tool – This is one place where I wish Scrivener had some more revision tools. And a lot of the goal-setting tools recommended by folks like Lifehack and Michael Hyatt work better for drafting than revision. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track incoming comments and suggestion, assign them a due-date, and color code them (gray for completed tasks, yellow for late ones).
  • Make it measurable – You can’t take your CP’s 3000 comments on as a whole or you’ll go nuts. So break it up into small tasks anywhere from 5 minutes to no more than one working day. You want to be able to see some progress every single day to help keep you motivated and give you a sense of success.
  • Use contests or conferences as deadlines – Nothing like knowing that you might be pitching your work to an agent during something like #PitMad, the Baker’s Dozen or Secret Agent contests, or Query Kombat, or that you’ve already paid for a pitch session at a conference to get you working on that revision.
  • Get a CP to keep you honest – Find a critique partner who is at a similar point in his/her revision process and make a solemn vow to swap manuscripts. If you don’t have one, check out local writing groups, the appropriate professional organization for your genre, or services like How About We CP? Then put a date on it. And harass encourage each other. Or make bets. Or whatever will keep you working on that manuscript every single day until it’s done.

The thing that amazed me about this latest round of revisions is that I actually found my editing flow. I didn’t know it even existed for writers stuck in the drudgery of revision, but it does! Apparently all I needed was a little structure to turn revision from a daunting task to something conquerable.

Sep 17

Happy Birthday, Brother…

I knew I was off as soon as I opened my eyes this morning. When I sat down to write today’s words, nothing came out. I felt tired and lackluster. I hid my nose in a book for a while, hoping I’d feel better. I didn’t. I jumped in the car to pick up the kids and mid-way through the short drive, my heart felt like it was expanding, in that uncomfortable way that forces hot tears out. I hate crying. Get a grip, I told myself, you’re driving.

Sometimes the words you want to write are not the words you need to write. Today I need to say a few words about my brother, Jeff, who died in July. Because it’s his birthday today. He’s been on my mind ever since I looked at the calendar this morning and realized it was the 17th, but reminders have been everywhere today: Facebook, a nice SPAM-mail reminding me to wish him a happy day, messages from family members.

It’s a strange thing to grow up with a brother who is 16 years older than you are. He was driving before I was born. So my first memories of him are as an adult, with a young family of his own. We never lived under the same roof, we’re not even of the same generation in some ways.

His sweet children are closer in age to me, and have been on my mind today, too. Jayson, who spent so much time with us growing up that I think more people assumed he was my brother than realized he was my nephew. Jaymi, who grew into this amazing, fashionable, gorgeous mama-bear seemingly over night. Megan, who was the first baby I got to watch through every step from birth to beautiful adulthood. And Justin, who is impossibly taller than I am (by a lot) now, an amazing athlete, and on the verge of adulthood himself.

Jeff was quick with a smile or a joke and more than a little inclined to break the rules, which just increased the cool factor in my young eyes. I’ve mulled over many favorite memories today, but the one that stands out is of him, shirtless, sunglass-clad, one hand on the wheel of his ski boat. We screamed over the water in that boat, summer after summer, the wind making my eyes tear and taking my breath away, the sun blazing off the surface of the lake.

When he slowed down on the particular day I remember, his wife, Karen, was already snugging fingerless gloves onto her hands in preparation for what came next. Someone tossed the tube into the water and Karen jumped in after it. She climbed on and we all cheered. He gunned it and she rocketed forward the second the slack left the line holding the tube to the back of the boat. Laughing like a maniac, he circled again and again, tighter and tighter, until the tube tipped sideways and Karen, still hanging on, cartwheeled across the water with the tube, until it finally shot her across the surface of the water in a heap. She came up sputtering with a few sharp words about his crazy driving, but laughing as well. He took it easier on the littler ones when we were in the tube, but more than one cousin lost swim trunks in that lake, and I ate more than my share of water on those wild rides.

There are other memories less bliss-filled than this one, as there always are over the long trajectory of any family’s life. But this is the one I want for his birthday today: one with sunshine on the water and joy in all our hearts.

Aug 26

My Personal Theme Song

Today was a good writing day. Not just productive (although I revised three long chapters), but energizing. The kind of day where I tore myself away from my computer at the appointed hour to make the school run and bounced as I walked to the car. It’s true, writing can give you an endorphin rush that’s right up there with sex and football. Yes, I just wrote that in public (sorry, Mom!).

As my best friend can attest, I’m the kind of person who believes I was plucked from a John Hughes movie and therefore I live a lot of my life with various theme songs playing. Of course, instead of doing something dramatic like standing outside my true love’s window blasting “In Your Eyes” (I’ve done that. He wasn’t my true love though. I digress…), I’m most often doing mundane things like driving to school. And besides, my fellow PTO moms just don’t seem to appreciate it when I squeal into my parking space with the top down (OK, just the windows down since I drive a Golf and not my dream car–a Mini convertible) blasting Sabotage…

So today, when I bounced to the car like an Energizer Bunny on meth, I cranked the music up before I even knew what my iPod would serve up. And I’m not even joking, Deee-Lite blared out, full blast:

There may have been some crazy car-dancing going on. And in case you’re wondering, that’s not really a Finnish thing (as if I don’t always stick out like a loud-mouthed, curly-haired freaky sore thumb enough around here already).

People far more eloquent than I am have written about the manic ups and horrible downs of the creative life, so I won’t. But I will say that every day is not Deee-Lite around here. I have plenty that are like this:

I’m just happy to report that today was not that day. I can’t make any promises about tomorrow. But today, I’m basking in it. And then I get home from the school run, and I find a keynote address for WriteOnCon, the online writer’s conference I’m participating in this week. It’s from Peter Knapp from The Park Literary Group, a fabulous agent I encountered at the Midwest Writers Workshop this summer. In it, he shares an inspiring anecdote for anyone who has ever experienced a moment of doubt. And come on, that’s everyone, not just us creative types. It’s beautiful. So read it, flick your Bic (am I dating myself here?), then dance with me:

And yes, I realize I’m posting more musings and unapologetic navel-gazing. It’s intentional. Writing personal memoir (and humor) takes practice. I’m just doing my practicing out loud, so to speak.

Aug 13

A moment of perfect happiness

At a certain point this summer, after months of expat uncertainty, some very, very difficult goodbyes, and the death of my oldest brother, I started to wonder if I’d hardened myself as some sort of defense mechanism against all the grief and chaos. I’m the type of person who cries through all the Budweiser and Olympic commercials, who never fails to alarm my children by blubbing during kid movies like Maleficent, and who can be moved to tears by a beautiful flower, guitar riff, or piece of writing. And yet, when faced with the harsh, gut-wrenching stuff that adult life sends my way, sometimes I find it hard to cry.

Maybe all those saved up tears were just waiting for an excuse to spill out, or maybe I’d just held them in as long as I could, but tonight, watching Hook on the couch with my family, they streamed freely pretty much throughout the entire movie. We retreated upstairs for a whole-family cuddle afterwards and I felt my heart swell with love and gratitude for my family just as it ached with the losses we have experienced.

Caught up in this sublime moment, I hugged my squirmy children and said, “Shhh! Let’s just feel this moment of perfect happiness together.” They stilled for just a moment, so that I could hear all four of us breathing together and I really thought my heart might burst with the poignancy of the feeling. As if he could sense it, my almost ten-year-old, my sweet, sweet, boy, reached his hand across my chest, as if to draw me closer in the already tight embrace four people experience when crammed together into a double bed.

And then he stuck his finger right up his sister’s nose in a fit of giggles. “I just couldn’t help myself,” he cried, as my daughter screamed “Gross!” in indignant rage and leapt from the bed. At another time in life, I might have thought FML and stormed off, myself indignant that my perfect moment was spoiled by such goofiness. But not tonight. Tonight, I know it was just exactly what I needed.

Aug 12

It’s time to talk…

This morning, I skipped my morning run to finish reading Peter Pan. When I finished the last word, I commented to my husband that reading the book made me appreciate one of my favorite movies, Hook, even more for all the amazing details from the original story that appeared in this very modern retelling. And of course, at the center of this movie is the rivalry between Hook and Pan, portrayed so magnificently by Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams.

So I join the ranks of millions who are shocked and saddened by the death of this consummate funnyman. But I’m also angry. I’m angry because we as a community are going to share a million hilarious YouTube clips, funny quotes, and memorials, but we’re not going talk about what took this brilliant man from the Earth too soon. We’re not going to talk about mental illness.

If we’re not going to talk about it when the mentally ill commit mass murder, then why on Earth would we talk about it now when it’s so much easier to just quote Good Will Hunting (whose award winning sound-track, by the way, was created by another victim of mental illness, Elliott Smith) and go about our business?

This summer, I lost my oldest brother to complications from life-long untreated alcoholism. Although his individual struggle is over, the repercussions of his alcoholism will reverberate through our family–especially through the lives of his four children and his grandchildren–for many years.

I feel such sadness for Robin Williams’ wife and children, and for his close friends and extended family. I wish them privacy and peace during an awful time. But for the rest of us, I wish for the strength to put aside the fears, the stigmas, and the discomfort that come with talking about what we can do as countries, as governments, as families, as communities, to keep these people from feeling so isolated and alone that the only way out they can envision involves their tragic, lonely death.

Aug 04

The Writing Process Blog Tour

I find it funny that my first post after a three month blogging hiatus concerns my writing process. For all you know, I haven’t written since my last post way back on April 15. But I can assure you that much writing has occurred this summer. In fact, I’ve experienced some writerly firsts this summer. I attended my first writers’ conference–the Yale Writers’ Conference. The amazing Terra Elan McVoy taught an exhilarating Children’s & YA session over the five days and I made some great friends.

That alone would have made the summer a success from a writing perspective, but then in July I was lucky enough to attend the Midwest Writers Workshop. My time at Yale felt like a writer’s retreat. This felt like a writer’s baptism by fire. Over three days, we learned about the publishing industry, market trends, how to pitch to an agent, how to create suspense in our writing, and so much more. Another energetic YA session, this time taught by Daniel Jose Older, kicked off the conference. And by the end of the weekend, I had another first–my first request for pages from an agent!

Amid all that excitement, I met even more great writer-friends and one of them, Kathy Palm, invited me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. At first I felt hesitant–what does someone at the very beginning of her fiction writing career have to share that others might want to read? Then I realized that while my fiction career is in its infancy, I’ve been meeting various writing deadlines for a couple of decades now. So what the heck. Here goes!

What am I currently working on?

I am working on a middle-grade adventure story–think The Giver meets Hatchet–called The Outlands that I started as part of NaNoWriMo in November 2013.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

There are so many great things going on in middle grade right now. But what I’m missing as I read is a good old fashioned survival story like My Side of the Mountain. I am very interested in medicinal uses for native plants, so that definitely comes into play on Elias’s journey.

Why do I write what I write?

Two reasons: my children, Gabriel & Lily. They fall into the middle grade age range right now. Not only does that mean that I’m previewing a lot of middle grade for them, but also that I hear the thoughts and dialog of middle grade children all day long. That has been really helpful as I fleshed out Elias and his friends.

How does my writing process work?

I used to get by just franticly scribbling things down as a deadline loomed. Now that I’m a full-time mother and a full-time writer, I have to be a lot more disciplined. I try to write every morning, Monday through Friday, while the children are in school and if I’m really in a groove, or I miss a morning session, I write in the evenings after they’re in bed as well. This summer has been a huge challenge because we’ve been traveling all summer. Making time to write was often impossible, but luckily I’m in revision right now, which is a little easier to do in fits and starts than generating new content, which I prefer to do in longer uninterrupted blocks so I can really get into the flow.

And now…I’d like to introduce some of my writing friends who I’ve invited to play along:

I met Jilly Gagnon at Yale Writers’ Conference this summer. She’s smart, hilarious, and writes both YA and adult humor. Check out her blog, It’s (not) Just Another Writer’s Blog.

When Sara Toole Miller and I first met, she was still Sara Toole. Little did I know that my fellow DePauw alum and I would reconnect years later to share the joys and woes of the writing life. Her blog is a great resource for writers!

If I had to describe Gail Werner in two words, it would be: writing twin! When we met at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop, magic happened. We just couldn’t stop talking (I know that surprises those of you who know us in real life). Check out her blog and also her amazing photography!

Apr 15

Big Questions, No Answers

a picture of me in my straw cowboy hat

Pondering the Big Questions of the universe…

Not knowing what continent you’ll be living on next year brings up lots of questions. You know, Big Questions. Meaning of life questions. Ones that can only be discussed ad nauseam in detail, never answered. And have I mentioned that those discussions require wine? And chocolate?

I think my subconscious, fueled by these discussions, directed me when I chose the reading materials for my literature class this week. I chose Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. OK, my ego might have been involved too, probably because saying “when I taught Chekhov this week…” was totally on my Lit Geek bucket list!!

On the surface, this is a story about the morality of capital punishment versus life imprisonment, a worthy topic to be sure. Digging deeper, however, you find a story about our motivations as humans in a materialistic world. One man in the story is driven to consider murdering another in cold blood to avoid financial ruin. The other spends fifteen years in isolation and study, only to eschew both the money he’s about to earn by winning the bet and the society that values money over all else, or, as Chekhov (in translation) puts it, “exchange(s) heaven for earth.” Read the rest of this entry »

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