Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Monday, November 30, 2009

Goal Roundup: November

Back to the real world after five days off for Thanksgiving--a nice break, even if I did spend too much of it with a cold and got almost nothing done as a result.

I made a few notes on things I can do to bulk out Furies into a proper novel, should I decide to do so. It can sit for a while without undue harm. I have mainly been working on the early pages of the third book of Empire, which still doesn't have a title of its own. This by way of procrastination, as I am supposed to spend December working on the first chapter of the first book, sitting down like a grown up with all of my critiques and making it better, but for the moment am indulging the whiny little inner voice that says "don't wanna!"

Tomorrow it will be December. The day after that, my request for dedicated readers goes live. I will try not to whine this time!

On the topic of our goals. After a great couple of months, November saw significant slippage.
  • House: Sick of the whole thing. They suggested one listing early on and we didn't even go look. Very few listings this month anyway. F
  • Clutter: No progress. F
  • Financial: Recovering from last month's extravagance, plus Thanksgiving - half goal. C 
  • Food: Lots of cooking going on, at least. A
  • Writing: Won NaNoWriMo--50,000 words in 20 days. Got crits on my first chapter, founds lots of structural problems, did not abandon in despair (yet). Left the local writing group, as they're just too far from the sort of stuff I want to do. A
  • Reading: Halfway through both Matter and Green Rider, and unexpectedly found myself rereading Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, a fine little book. A
Call the month a C, I guess, as we move into the final days of '09.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Despite having taken the previous day off, I hadn't done any advance prep at all, which is quite unlike me--I didn't even settle the menu until less than a week beforehand. So I had to start cooking around 6:30. I love a heaped-up bread basket, and we were expecting our guests around 11, so I thought a few brunchy breads might be welcome. The first thing to go into the oven was Golden Pumpkin Walnut Loaf, a favorite standby. They were followed by Fresh Cranberry Muffins. While the dough rose for Cloverleaf Honey Wheat Rolls, I started on the savories.

The only new recipe I did this year was the Cranberry Sauce with Port and Dried Figs. I still haven't found "my" sauce, and I'm not sure this one is it, but it was very, very good and I'd certainly make it again. While that cooled, I roasted the chestnuts, made the rub for the turkey, and put together the Prosciutto and Gruyere Pinwheels (yes, again--I'll do something different for Christmas, though!) No one was in any danger of starving while we waited for four o'clock to arrive.

We had a big bird this year--sixteen pounds--and it had to go in around 11:30. Our habit has become to buy a kosher bird. This one, thank goodness, had been defeathered better than some we've had in the past. This year's recipe was Maple-Glazed Turkey with Dijon Gravy, and I can definitely recommend it--the turkey was practically perfect, sweet and tender.

Alongside it we had Brussels Sprout Hash with Caramelized Shallots, mashed potatoes (of course), a simple salad, and New England Sausage Stuffing with Chestnuts.

A clean-up crew of Dave and his mom tackled the dishes while I tucked away leftovers. Dessert is traditionally handled by my mother-in-law, who always brings both pumpkin and apple pies, no matter if it's just the four of us.

It was a wonderful day. Warm, drizzly weather--we had the windows open most of the time, the oven heated the place up too much. Nice to all be together. The kids behaved themselves marvelously, everything turned out well, and we all enjoyed the day. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Green Rider Comment

50 pages in, and I wonder if I'm being too harsh on this book, but... "Eletians?" Call an elf an elf, woman.

Deep Chocolate Sour Cream Pound Cake

This was the first recipe I've tried from The Cake Book. I thought I had a close to perfect chocolate pound cake already, but this one blew it out of the water. It is intense, deep, and rich, and though she suggests glazing it, I think that would be overkill. It is deadly good for snacking on, and keeps fantastically.

1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c cake flour
1 c Dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 c granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 c sour cream

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat to 325F. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.
  2. Sift together the flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and set aside.
  3. Beat the butter until very creamy, about two minutes. Gradually beat in the sugar and beat until well blended and light, about four minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping the bowl as needed. 
  4. In a small bowl, stir the vanilla extract into the sour cream (I don't know why she has this step; I put the vanilla in after the eggs, which almost every other recipe I have does). If your mixer has a splatter shield, attach it now (would that mine did!). At low speed, add the dry ingredients to the butter in three additions, alternating with the sour cream in two additions, mixing just until blended. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
  5. Bake 65-75 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack 15 minutes. 
  6. Invert the cake onto a rack and cool completely.

Cinnamon Swirl Buttermilk Pound Cake

The second recipe I tried within a week from Tish Boyle's The Cake Book, this one was made for an office birthday and got excellent reviews there. It is not a terribly sweet cake, but sturdy and scrumptious, and would make an excellent brunch item.

Cinnamon Streusel
1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/3 c packed light brown sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Buttermilk Pound Cake
2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1 c unsalted butter, softened
2 c granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
1 c buttermilk

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 325F. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.
  2. To make the streusel, in a small bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt, breaking up any large lumps of brown sugar. Add the melted butter and stir until blended and crumbly.
  3. To make the pound cake, sift together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cardamom in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine, and set aside.
  4. In an electric mixer, beat the butter until very creamy, about two minutes. Gradually add the sugar and beat at medium-high speed until well blended and light, about four minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla extract and orange zest. At low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk in two additions. Mix until just combined.
  5. Scrape half the batter into the pan and smooth into an even layer. Sprinkle the streusel evenly over the batter. Scrape the remaining batter on top and smooth.
  6. Bake 65-75 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. 
  7. Invert the cake onto the rack and cool completely. 
  8. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

Friday, November 20, 2009

50,000 and... done!

I do have two new cake recipes to blog, which I hope to do this weekend. Cake is always a good topic, right?

But in the meantime, I finished National Novel Writing Month! 50,000 words in 20 days, which is of course considerably less than a month. Evidently there is no limit to my word count when I have a nice clear outline and things are slow in my other committed areas. In an amusing bit of synchronicity, I crossed the line having finished all of the stuff I had in my outline, and my slow time is ending as of today, so I am very, very glad that I got off to such a strong early start; without that, it's likely that I would be abandoning the project right about now.

Obviously, I haven't written a novel in twenty days. I figure I am about halfway done with what might someday be the first draft of a novel. I am presently trying to decide if I want to take the rest of the month to do some more work on it in what time I can find, if I can stand opening up all those crit emails and reworking the first chapter of Empire, or if I should just take the rest of the month off and maybe do some reading, or something kooky like that, in between planning for the holidays. I am also noting with a mix of humor and despair that I could probably turn this half-a-draft into a three-book series without half trying. They're fun people to write about. Maybe next year?

And speaking of Empire, two more crits trickled in after the normal deadline. One of them had pretty much the same critical comments as the rest of them, but framed them by saying that she had really enjoyed reading it. I actually got teary-eyed, so I guess I do want to be a writer.

Where was I? NaNoWriMo, and my little progress bar turning green. I had two things I wanted to jot down here, if only for my future reference.

  • Outlining. I don't care what Stephen King says about it, I will use this tool again. I suspect a lot depends on what kind of story you're telling (so many things do). For this one, a purely event-driven action tale with a lot of set pieces and four characters to juggle, I think an outline makes an enormous amount of sense. The draft so far is messy enough as it is; if I had tried to "just write it," it would be more so. Your mileage may vary, naturally. I have two non-Empire novels in the mental wings; both of them got up to a few pages of atmosphere and character intros before fading off into a plotless muddle. Might be worth it to try this approach.

  • First draft tell, second draft show. This is something that I am starting to notice about my own working habits. Yours may be different. When I do a first draft, I write a lot of prose--my characters go off into lengthly interior monologues about what they're doing and why they're doing it, their personal  history, their hopes and fears and hypotheses about the problem they're trying to solve. In the second draft, I can turn these into actual scenes, but I don't seem able to do without that intermediate churn step, so I'm going to try to make a virtue of it and just let it happen that way. 

I have also noticed that I tend to give my main characters spectacularly horrible family lives. This makes them suicidal adolescents and over-achieving adults, with a finely honed set of emotional tools for coping with the less pleasant bits of being an SF/F hero. But this, I think, is not particularly unusual for the genre.

Anyway--I did it. I'm glad I did it. I've taken a much-needed break from other projects, wrote some stuff that I think is fun and might actually make a decent book someday, and proved to myself that I can still come up with new things, and still enjoy the process of writing.

Back soon with cake recipes. Promise.

Editing to add: Just realized that it was actually 19 writing days--I took one day off due to feeling crummy, as you can see in the chart.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Classic Apple Pie

Despite the awesome wonder that is National Novel Writing Month--some days good, some days not so much, but well ahead of schedule right now--and the occasional case of the blahs, I have still been doing a bit of cooking. One does have to eat, and if one doesn't like takeout or macaroni and cheese from a box all that often, one had best do it oneself. And sometimes one must make things that are not just "something to eat" but fun.

I should make a note here, I do not actually like apple pie. I was raised, not by wolves, but by people whose culinary interest and abilities almost invariably involved cans of... things. Fresh fruit was not a frequent visitor, and it was unheard of in desserts, which usually meant either ice cream or store-brand sandwich cookies. Every fall we went apple picking with my grandparents, and for months afterward would grab one from the bushel out in the garage during visits, but I don't recall her making any pies; chocolate cake was her forte. I was only vaguely aware that there were any kinds of apples other than Red Delicious. (Sometimes I wonder if all of this might be considered grounds for a lawsuit.) The end result of all of this is that I have a sad underappreciation of fruit-based desserts.

My husband, who was raised by people who know a thing or two about food, and who has deep, lifelong ties to New England, does like apple pie. About once every two years I make him one, always using the same recipe, from one of the first cookbooks I went out and bought on my own (I think from "The Good Cook," which even now, years after I left, regularly sends me pathetic emails begging me to renew membership, although they still think my name is spelled Revecca). The book in question is Mrs. Fields Cookie Book and my copy is now falling apart. Here is the pie in question, with recipe to follow:

3 c all-purpose flour
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 c salted butter, chilled
6-8 Tbsp ice water

6 large Granny Smith (or baking apple of your choice), peeled and thinly sliced, equaling about four cups
1 c white sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 c cornstarch
1/4 salted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

Egg Wash:
1 large egg, beaten
1 Tbsp white sugar

  1. Whisk flour and lemon zest together in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter until the dough resembles coarse meal. Add ice water and blend until dough can be gathered into a ball. (You can use a food processor for all of the above, but be careful not to overprocess. The mistake I normally make is not adding enough water.) Divide in half, flatten into disks, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and chill one hour or until firm.
  2. Combine sugar, cinnamon, and cornstarch in a large bowl. Add apples and toss until dry ingredients coat the apples completely. 
  3. Preheat oven to 400F.
  4. On a floured surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll one piece of the dough out into an 11-inch circle. Plate in a 9-inch pie plate. Trim excess dough, leaving a 3/4-inch overhang.
  5. Spoon in apple filling and place butter pieces on top.
  6. Roll out the second piece of dough into a 10-inch circle. Place on top of filling. Crimp the layers together ("decoratively" she says--hah).
  7. Brush top with egg wash, cut steam slits in top crust, and sprinkle with sugar. 
  8. Place pie on center rack of oven, bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350F. Bake an additional 30 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature on a rack.

Tomorrow is supposed to be rainy. Perhaps in between word-bursts I will find time to sit down and do some planning for the holidays. I am normally sort of hyper about this stuff--here it is, less than two weeks to Thanksgiving, and I don't even know who's coming! I haven't started planning my Christmas baking, let alone done any, y'know, actual baking. Next week I have to do an office birthday cake, and haven't figured out what to do for that, either, though I'm thinking a trial of Tish Boyle's Cake Book is long overdue.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Battling the "I Suck" Demon

This was, actually, predictable. As I've mentioned six or seven times now, I've joined Critters. This past week, my first submission, the first chapter of the first novel in the series I've been pouring effort into for what feels like half my life now, went up for review.

And got almost entirely ignored. The usual and sought-for average is 8-10 responses. I got two. The only reasons I refuse to crit pieces I've been sent are a) it's a horror story, since I don't like those, or b) it sucks so much that I can't even figure out where to start telling the author how to fix it. So... ouch.

The verdict, such as it is with only two jurors, is that my grasp of the English language is fine at the sentence and word level, but that the chapter is a structural mess. Too many POVs, too many time jumps, too many obscure motives. As a writer, one has a choice of two responses:
  • They don't know what they're talking about
  • I suck
Being a creature of dubious self-confidence on my best days, I tend toward the latter. The only reassuring thing is that I am pretty sure that every other writer who has ever lived has come face to face with this creature, and most of them lived to tell the tale. Oh, some of them may have quit writing, but obviously, we never heard about them. Others faced the sucker down and kept on going.

So, we have a date in December, my first chapter and I. Even as I type this, I think (I am, after all, an optimist) that the problem is probably mostly in the early chapters. I've rewritten them too many times, added, taken away, condensed, reordered, and expanded and left myself with a muddle. It can be fixed, and maybe there are fewer problems later... maybe.

Of course, if no one out there is willing to read even chapter one, I might never find out.

Friday, November 6, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update - Day 6

Things have definitely gotten more challenging as the week went on; I have been losing momentum, though I am still well ahead of the "required" daily wordcount thanks to the strong start. I had more things to do, and less ability to focus.

The first few items in my plot itinerary were easy, because they were mainly about introducing the characters, and I could pull from a lot of my background notes. Once they actually had to start interacting, I found myself moving more tentatively, feeling my way through their meetings. I'm trying to do a lot with conversation, and very little via character introspection, flashback, that sort of thing. The book is supposed to be, in part, a mystery, and part of that is the mysteries within each of the characters.

I have gotten up to the part where they get attacked by space pirates, a minor encounter with some enemy auxiliaries, but their first chance at a victory. Romantic tensions are emerging. After this, my notes become less certain, and I expect it to be a tough weekend.

I got my first "crit" on the novel. Somewhat mixed, but good to have problems identified.

Monday, November 2, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

Oh God, you groan, not another one? Well, yes. I need a break from all of my delightful (to me), neurotic (unquestionably) Tethyn characters and their penchant for getting into dire situations and saving the world. I want to write something fun, and a little bit silly, to stop taking this whole bloody project of writing so damn seriously for a while. I find myself worrying about this, if I am going to encourage bad habits by not even really trying to write something good?--but I'm going to write it anyway.

Some world-saving may ensue anyway. I seem to lean toward that sort of thing.

I have spent the past couple of weeks writing up an outline of sorts--mainly a list of set pieces I knew I wanted to include, stitched together by a few bare-bones requirements from my various genres--and writing up character backgrounds (for which those questionnaires included in some role-playing games are actually pretty useful), figuring out who these people were and how they were going to interact.

The first day, Sunday, was easy; I was up at 4:30 (stupid time change), and everyone else was out for the morning, so I blasted through the first few sections of my plot and ended up with more than 5,000 words. Monday was, of course, a bit more challenging--for one thing, I was exhausted--but I plugged away early on, and at lunch, adding enough to my total to keep me happy. We'll see how things go from here....