Writer’s Workspace: 3/28

Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on: only 9 days remain until my self-imposed deadline to complete the second draft of my archaeological time travel novel, ABSENT.  I conferred this morning with my secretary and social planner, Mr. Ramses, and he and I decided the agenda for today was to lay some major pipe.  Word count needs to exceed 3K this afternoon or there’s no way I’m gonna make it.

Snippet from the screen: Black spots appeared in Nick’s vision, peppering his last glimpse of Emily’s pale, determined face before she disappeared from view.

“Be careful,” he whispered.

He and Alexa worked in silence, shoveling away snow, listening to the weight of it groaning up-slope.  He had to stop halfway through and throw up.  Alexa watched him with a deep crease set between her brows. 

“Hey, Detective Stoic.  You determined to kill yourself too?”

He shrugged.  Maybe he was.

In my mug: Tazo Zen green tea, ’cause, you know, antioxidants and stuff.

On the iTunes: I’ve got a little Bruce Springsteen “Thunder Road” action going on over here.  And It. Is. Sweet.

Out my window: Brooklyn’s bout of spring/winter cray-cray ain’t over by a long shot.  Yesterday it was 40.  Today?  65.  I know which I prefer, and global warming be damned.

Keeping me company:  the aforementioned secretary/social planner, Mr. Ramses, King of Cats, has abandoned me for his afternoon nap.  Hard to argue with the cute, though.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone:  links for you, my dears!  First up, some musing on the writing life from the awesome Laini Taylor.  Second, the next book in Stacia Kane’s SUPER FABULOUS Downside series is out!  If you haven’t devoured these great books yet, now’s an ideal time to start.  And, finally, for those of you who like being in all your characters’ heads at once…a podcast from Writing Excuses on the omniscient POV.  Enjoy 🙂

What great links do you have to share?  Post em’ in the comments, and while you’re at it, tell me what you’ve got cooking today.

Book Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (2011. 432 pages. YA)

It’s been awhile since a book has cast such a gripping spell on me, but this one managed it (and then some).

Daughter of Smoke and Bone tells the story of Karou, a girl with a mysterious past who lives among hideous monsters who — on the inside — are anything but.  Karou’s life is unusual, sure, but through her art and her tentative friendships, she has found a way to live with one foot in the magical world she shares with tooth-collecting demons and another in the mundane (but never boring) world of modern day Prague.  That is, until a cruel avenging angel steps through a tear in the sky and rains fire and vengeance down on everything Karou knows and loves.  Oh, and he’s her soul mate.

The tag line for this book states: An angel and a demon fell in love.  It did not end well.

True, but…as always, the journey is the thing.

Karou is a wonderful protagonist and Taylor has struck a great balance between Karou’s relatable teenage angst and her sheer ass-kicking awesomeness.  The book is ultimately about Karou discovering who she is and where she’s from, but its sweep takes in eons of history, a grand theological struggle between two races who each see the other as evil incarnate, and a story of love that defies both time and logic.  It’s completely awesome.

Best of all, Laini Taylor knows her way around the written word.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone is lyrically written, lushly described, and a pleasure to read.  My only complaint?  It ends on something of a cliffhanger, leaving the wait for a sequel long and bitter indeed.

This book has been nominated for a Nebula Award and, in my opinion, it is well-deserving of the honor.

Hook me, baby!

Oof.  Writing the beginning of a novel is hard, isn’t it?  I mean, everyone always complains about the dreaded middle or the trouble of nailing the ending, but let’s be honest:  if you don’t hook the reader with your opener, it doesn’t matter what you do with the middle or the end.

Authors, agents, and publishers are perennially asking for hooks:  “Hook me on the first page.  Hook me with the first paragraph.  Hook me in the first line.”  For short stories, this is (slightly) easier to do, but with novels it sometimes feels impossible to strike the proper balance between giving your reader a sense of the characters and grabbing them by the lapels and shrieking YOU WILL BE AMAZED BY THE SKIN-SINGEING THRILLS AHEAD.

This problem has been on my mind of late.  I just finished a submission for a writing workshop I’ll be attending this coming May.  We were allowed to send only 5K in for review and at first I felt very stymied by this.  I’m a novel writer.  How the heck am I supposed to get meaningful feedback on 5K words?  Then I realized if my first 5K doesn’t grab readers at this workshop, it sure as hell isn’t going to pass muster with agents and editors.  This was (gulp) the perfect opportunity to find out if I’d written a good hook.

Problem is, once I really zoomed in on the first 5K in isolation, I began to fret.  The opener was not particularly dramatic and the story has something of a slow reveal.  It’s good stuff (it really is, I swear!), but it isn’t action-packed.  It’s more “strange events unsettle the heroine’s life” than “ghostpigs attack the space station with lasers”.  In the end, I decided that despite being well written and characterized, the opening wasn’t enough of a hook.  I made a late night, last minute change (I mean, those are ALWAYS a good idea, right?) and started with a scene swiped from near the end of the climax, one chocked full of ghostpigs and lasers.  Now I’m biting my nails that this’ll feel like a gimmick or a cheat rather than a clever way to make the reader go: “WHOA! How do we wind up here??”.

I’ll guess I’ll find out if the change worked when I show up for my ritual evisceration at the workshop in a few months.

In the meantime, I continue to ponder the difficulty with novel openings.

How important is it to put your explosions and sparkly vampires in the first paragraph?  How much leeway will your reader allow you to set the scene for what is to follow?  How many pages or paragraphs will really good characters buy you?  Can you start with a few pages of “normal life” before you rip it all out from under the readers’ feet or must you seed all that in as backstory after the king has executed your heroine’s lover in the first paragraph?

Obviously the answers to these questions shift like dandelion seeds in the wind.  How good of a writer are you?  What are the preferences of the agent, editor, or reader who picks up what you’ve written?  Is your book a stand-alone, the first in a series, or the fifteenth?  What phase of the moon is it?

I just don’t know.

All I know is my instincts were telling me my opening was too slow.  I attempted to fix it.  It may turn out my instincts were wrong, or that they were right but my solution was wrong.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Anyone else out there struggle with openings?  Should we always lead with change that transforms the protagonist’s life or can we buy a few pages to establish “normal life” before the change comes?  Maybe there’s a happy middle ground I haven’t found yet.  What do you think?

Here I am. What do you think?

Since getting serious about writing fiction a little over two years ago I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon:  writers seem to form social bonds with each other very rapidly.  There is a lot of rhetoric in the writing community about “finding your tribe”, which is–I suppose–meant to imply the discovery of an alchemical union among those of like minds who color outside the normal lines of society.  I’ve always found the idea oddly cultish, but like so many things that worm their way into common vernacular, I’ve realized there is something to it.

Last weekend I attended a writing retreat in Dallas.  It was lunchtime on the second day and a bunch of us were sitting around at Chipotle, just hanging out.  It struck me that two years ago I knew none of these people, some I’d literally only met the day before, and even those I’d known longer I saw at most once a year or only online.  And yet I exposed my vulnerable insides to them on a regular basis and trusted them not to eviscerate me (or, to know if they did it was out of love).  Munching my tacos and pondering this, I though: “this is freaking amazing.”  And it really is.

When I attended the Viable Paradise workshop in the Fall of 2009 I didn’t know any other writers.  Because of the friendships I forged in that one short week on Martha’s Vineyard, today I am part of vibrant community of writers, many of whom I feel as close to as friends I’ve known for years.  How can this happen in such a short time and on such short acquaintance?  It sounds crazy.

It boils down, I believe, to the basic fact that sharing your writing and giving and receiving critiques is deeply, unavoidably personal.  It cuts right through the delicate dance of “how much of myself should I show these people” that we usually engage in when we make new friends.  You basically walk up to another writer (who may come from a different part of the country, have different political or religious views and a wholly divergent background from you) open up your chest, pull out your heart and say: “Here I am. What do you think?”  You’ve found your tribe when they don’t run screaming.

All of this leads you to come to trust people whose lives you may know very little about or with whom you do not interact much beyond your shared love of writing and desire to improve that writing.  It’s a broadening, life-expanding experience.  As an anthropologist, I admit I find this fascinating.  In some ways, the little tribes we writers form are nothing at all like real tribes, which are rooted in kinship.  On the other hand, if we consider this term more broadly, writer’s tribes are totally rooted in kinship, just not the biological kind.

So, sitting there in the Dallas Chipotle, looking around at a circle of friends I acquired by most unconventional means and cherished all the more highly for it, I felt profoundly grateful.  We may not see each other in person very often and our honesty with each other may sometimes bruise egos or rub up against prickly edges, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Controlled chaos

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks around Casa Suri, and no mistake.  I’m pretty sure the last time I sustained this level of continuous stress was back when we were planning our (2) weddings.  Nevertheless, life must go on.  Exams must be written, proctored, and graded.  Words must be written.  The garbage insists on being taken out.

Major amounts of traveling are not helping things.  In the next seven days my husband will journey to states that touch all four borders of our country to give talks and go to interviews.  This makes me feel quite lazy to be traveling to only one place: a writing retreat in Dallas.

Though it’s adding to the pig pile of stress, the retreat also promises a much-anticipated break from it.  It’ll be populated by some good friends as well as new faces.  As hard as it’s been to carve out time to critique all the submissions, it will — I know — be well worth it.  I’m hoping for camaraderie, inspiration, good food, and plenty of beer.

Hopefully they’ll be time for the occasional update while I’m away…so stay tuned!

Everybody says…

…that chocolate is the best cure for the blues.  Everybody knows, though, that the real answer is exercise.  I woke up in a remarkably black mood this morning, so I’m trying both.  I flung myself around on the treadmill at the YMCA until I was too tired to maintain a crabby attitude.  Now I’m sitting at my favorite neighborhood cafe with a steamy, frothy mug of hot chocolate.  The special alchemy of endorphins + chocolate + Friday seems to be working.

So, on to some writerly updates.

I’ve punched out about 7K this week on the second draft of my archaeological time travel novel ABSENT.  For me, this is heavy-duty progress and I feel about 80% confident I can make my self-imposed deadline of April 1st to finish the damn thing and send it off to my writing group.

I submitted a few short stories that had been on the back burner to various markets, which felt good.  I’ve really stopped writing short fiction lately (the two novels I’m cooking up are more than enough to be getting on with), but it’s nice to have the shorter-term gratification that comes with knowing you’ve got a few things out to market.

The other big project on the docket is plowing through approximately 80K of submissions for the writer’s retreat I’m attending in Dallas at the end of next week.  I’ve skimmed over almost everything and started in on a more thorough read-through of two of the subs.  There’s a wide range of material and it’s nice to get out of my own head for awhile and see what other people have been working on.  Still, it is a lot of words, so I’d better get serious…and soon.

In non-writerly news, “the upheaval” continues (and will no doubt do so for quite a while).  My attitude on the whole thing changes with the wind, but right now I’m hopeful some hail Mary passes sprinkled liberally with fairy dust may bring the whole situation to a happy conclusion.  More to follow.

On a more cheerful note, our downstairs neighbors finally moved in yesterday. We are no longer the sole occupants of the 4 unit Brownstone in which we live!  The new neighbors seem nice — charming even.  They appear to have sufficient fingers and toes about them and no sign of horns.  All in all, a very positive development.

Well, there’s lots of reading and writing to be done and my hot chocolate is getting cold.  If you feel so inclined, please share your recent writing goals, accomplishments, and plans in the comments.  It’s always nice to know what everyone else is up to — makes you feel less alone, you know?

The Upheaval

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’m not sure what to say.  Something unexpected has happened.  Let’s call it “the upheaval”.

On the surface, “the upheaval” is Not Good.  Beneath the surface it may reveal itself to be a positive change or a neutral one, or just different.  It’s too soon to say.  In the meantime, it is unsettling and stressful and feels not quite real.

What has happened is not, in of itself, the point.  The point is that it feels weird and trite to be posting writing updates and book reviews as if everything is normal —  which is a stupid reaction because, of course, life goes on even when bad (or positive-disguised-as-bad, or neutral, or different) things are happening.  My dad would probably remind me that, in fact, those things *are* life.

I don’t like to whinge about my problems, mostly because I feel that my problems usually don’t warrant the title.  I’ve lived with Honduran families in houses with no electricity and a dirt floor who considered themselves very lucky compared to their neighbors down the street in the house made out of cardboard boxes.  Viewed in that light, it feels pretty unseemly to complain about the disappointing things that happen from time to time in my otherwise-charmed life.

So, I’m not writing this entry to complain but to share a happy discovery that has emerged from this week’s special brand of bleck:  writing is a really good way to get through a hard time.

Escaping into the imagined worlds of the novels I’m writing has proven an excellent cure for getting through a situation I can’t personally do much to effect (cupcakes, hot cocoa, and ice cream also appear to be viable treatments). In fact, during “the upheaval”, I’ve gotten more writing done than I have in months.  Even now, when things seem a little bleak, its nice to find that writing isn’t just something I love to do but something I can take solace in as well.  That’s pretty cool.

Maybe “the upheaval” can even be seen as an inciting incident, the start of a new story.  I certainly hope so.

In the meantime, pass the cupcakes.

Food for Thought: World’s Best Lasagna

Yes, seriously.  This recipe produces the world’s best lasagna.  Try it.  I dare you. 

Okay.  It’s a sleepy Saturday and you’ve got a dilemma.  There’s writing to get done, but you’ve also got people coming over for dinner.  This is the perfect dish to prepare because it allows time to write (about an hour and a half while the ragu is reducing to a melty puddle of animal goodness) and results in a soul satisfying meal.

This recipe is loosely adapted from Mario Batali’s cookbook “Molto Italiano” and is in the style of a Lasagna al Forno.

Serves 6. Total cooking time about 2 1/2 – 3 hours (but worth every second, I swear!).

For the ragu
1 lb of Italian sausage, removed from the casting
4 oz of pancetta, finely diced
1/2 lbs of ground beef
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 large rib of celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1/2 cup of tomato paste
12 oz of diced tomatoes in their juices
1/2 cup of whole milk
1/2 cup of water (or white wine)
1 tsp of fresh thyme
Olive oil
Salt & pepper

To make the ragu: pour about 1 Tbs olive oil in a large pot and heat on medium high. Add the diced onion, celery, carrot, and garlic and saute until translucent but not brown (about 5 minutes). Increase heat to high. Add the sausage, pancetta, and ground beef. Stir and break up clumps with your spoon until the meat is browned. Add the tomato paste, diced tomatoes, water (or wine), and milk. Stir well to incorporate. Add the thyme. Bring the mixture to a low boil and then cover and reduce heat. Let the ragu simmer, stirring occasionally, for about an hour and a half. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings by adding salt and pepper as needed.

While the ragu cooks, sneak to your office and get some writing done!

For the bechamel sauce
5 Tbs of butter
1/4 cup of flour
3 cups of whole milk (2% may be substituted, but do not use skim)
grated nutmeg & salt to taste
2 Tbs of mascarpone cheese

To make the bechamel: in a clean pot, melt the butter and wait until it bubbles/sizzles slightly. Add the flour and stir while it bubbles and sizzles to cook the roux. Add the milk, whisking vigorously to prevent lumps from forming. Cook the mixture over medium to medium-high heat until the sauce thickens and bubbles. Add grated nutmeg and salt to taste. Whisk in the mascarpone.

For the noodles
1 package of dried Lasagna noodles
fresh parmigiano reggiano cheese (do NOT substitute pre-grated cheese!!!).

To cook the noodles: bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook 4 lasagna noodles at a time, about 4 minutes each to par-cook.

To assemble the lasagna: layer the ragu, noodles, bechamel, and freshly grated parmigiano reggiano in a large, oven-safe casserole dish. Begin with a thin layer of ragu (enough to just cover the bottom of the dish). Layer noodles (one noodle thick) atop the ragu. Add another layer of ragu (a good, thick portion so that the noodles no longer show through.) Atop the ragu, add a layer of bechamel sauce. Atop the bechamel, add a layer of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano and a sprinkle of sea salt. Repeat this process until the dish is nearly full. Be sure not to skimp on the layers of ragu and bechamel; the idea is to create a thick, gooey layer between each noodle. You should wind up with only about 3 layers of noodles. The final, top layer should be bechamel sauce with plenty of parmigiano grated atop it and sprinkled with sea salt.

Place the lasagna into a preheated 375 degree oven and cook until the dish is bubbling and the cheese on top is beginning to brown (about 45 minutes). Any exposed pasta edges should be crisp. After removing from the oven, let the lasagna rest about 10 minutes (if you can bear it). Serve with wine (to cut the richness) and a simple salad.

Bon appetit!