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Archive for August, 2010

As you may have read in my post on my journey to publication, my husband and I left New Orleans three days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. This coming weekend will be an emotional commemoration, especially for those of us who no longer live in New Orleans but still feel a deep affection and longing for the city that, every day, continues to rise above the challenges it has faced.

As my forthcoming novel LITTLE GALE GUMBO is in part a tribute to my love of New Orleans and its unmatched culture and history, I thought I would offer another tribute with today’s post by giving our family recipe for red beans and rice, a quintessential New Orleans dish that is traditionally made on Monday (wash-day) but can certainly be made and savored any day (or days!) of the week.

1. Soak one bag of dried beans overnight in enough water that it rises about an inch above the beans. (Don’t use canned beans–they don’t come close–you need the starch of the dried beans to thicken the sauce.)

2. Add beans and water to pot (cast iron is preferable if you have it, or something equally sturdy–we were at a friend’s house here and didn’t have our trusty pot) as well as one onion, chopped, and several cloves of crushed garlic.

3. Heat over medium/high heat until boiling; add several bay leaves, 2 tablespoons of fresh thyme (dried is fine too), salt and pepper to taste.

4. When mixture begins to boil, lower heat to simmer and cover. Leave simmering for at least two hours, stirring occasionally. Add coins of smoked sausage (such as andouille or smoked turkey sausage–it must be smoked otherwise it will fall apart on you when sliced/cooked) to the beans to warm the sausage but don’t overcook. The beans will thicken considerably.

5. Turn off heat. Serve over rice with as much hot sauce as you care for. You can serve immediately or the next day–personally, we prefer to cook it the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight–the flavors get better with time.

Not too hard to make, very hard not to eat. Enjoy!

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Lately there have been a lot of posts about self-promotion and the marketing responsibilities of the author before, during and after garnering a book deal. It’s a concept that’s thrilling, that’s exciting, and that’s, well, very, very daunting.

But is it true?

Should we really be worrying about establishing a website/blog even before we have an agent? A book deal? Readers?

I think we should–and here’s one reason why:

Do everything you can to light your reader's way to you--and keep them coming back.

As part of the materials I am responsible for delivering to my publisher, I was asked to fill out an author Q& A. I was not entirely surprised to find that several of the questions involved my own plans/ideas for marketing. Did I have a website/blog/both? Did I know of any specialty markets that might be suitable to my book, or have any ideas for publicity angles that could enhance my book’s appeal/broaden my audience?

I’ll be the first to admit, these are questions that I might have previously assumed were designed for the author of a non-fiction book with the all-important platform. Now it’s certainly possible that the publisher uses this same form for their non-fiction authors, but I think the better point is that ALL authors of ALL genres should be dressing their hat racks with marketing caps and wearing them frequently.

I recently read an article about Erica Bauermeister’s success in cross-marketing with her successful novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, wherein she explained how accessing cooking blogs and cooking schools proved to be a wonderful way to connect with readers, since her book has a cooking-based plot.

There’s no question that the subject matter of food is perhaps a more straight-forward subject to cross-market with than others, but in this day and age, I have to believe that every subject has an opportunity to draw an untapped audience. The point is establishing your web voice (now that you’ve spent years establishing your writing voice, right?) and shouting it from the rooftops.

Will not having a website/blog before you query agents put you at a disadvantage? Based on my experience, no. I began my blog within days after my offer, but I am glad I did. Most of all because I am delighted to be in the company of so many other writers and readers who enjoy sharing their passion for stories (and, oh yes, food and drink and all-around merriment) as much as I do.

So what does everyone think about all this author-as-marketer business? Excited? Terrified? Undecided?

Dear readers, do you “follow” your favorite authors on Twitter or “friend them” on Facebook, or do you find that whole business on the windy side of foolish?

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Who knew I was so fond of the word brightly?

Turns out I am. Fanatical, even. In one of my recent editorial passes at my novel, I came to realize that I liked one of my characters to respond “brightly” to practically everything she did when she was of a certain mood.

She smiled brightly (well, yeah, who doesn’t?)

She laughed brightly (ditto)

She replied brightly (maybe not universal, but still.)

And sometimes, just sometimes, she even LOOKED brightly.

Yikes. Enough already!

Now, I am still committed to this charming and pivotal aspect of her personality, but, man! Methinks I need to lay off the brightness. There are other ways to suggest someone is: hopeful/sunny/optimistic/cheerful. Particularly when one doesn’t depend on an adverb to do it.

What about you all? Any descriptive words, phrases, analogies that you find yourself drawn to like a moth to a (bright!) flame?

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Dialog tags. Where would we be without them?

Let’s ask Girl and Boy what they think:

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t you?”

“I just said I didn’t, didn’t I?”

“Did you say it or did I say it?”

“I’m not sure. Which one of us is talking right now?”

And this is why we need them. So the issue at hand for writers isn’t whether or not to use them, but how sparingly and which ones. As writers and readers we know there are essentially two teams:

Team 1 says only use “he said, she said” or “she asked, he asked” (and sometimes the second option is even discouraged).

Team 2 favors the more demonstrative tags, the use of exclaims and snaps and shouts and whispers, etc, etc. etc…(and let’s not forget the often-overused adverbs, wherein we whisper quietly or shout loudly.)

For me, I fall somewhere in the middle of the two (as I suspect a lot of people do.) Some days, I am fearless when I write. I stick to the basics. I use only said and asked, and I strike out adverbs before they can reach the keyboard. But I won’t lie–it’s a battle. My inclination is always to use something else, and to, yes, tack on that dreaded adverb. I did so someĀ  in LITTLE GALE GUMBO and I assume I will do it some more in my next novel. But sparingly.

Because the truth is that the strongest dialog doesn’t need a tag to clarify its intention. As so many writers teach, the words being said should be enough indication.

For example:

Jill folded her arms, her eyes narrowing. “Must be nice being so perfect at everything,” she snapped snarkily.

Now I’m betting you already guessed the tone of that line even before you read the tag, which, frankly, comes a little too late anyway to be of much use to the reader. Now if you didn’t get the gist of the speaker’s tone, well then, the dialog should probably be reworked.

So fellow writers and readers, which team are you?

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We need characters to do things. The more dramatic and exciting and heart-breaking, the better. But make no mistake, a character can’t simply do willy-nilly. In years of writing, I’ve learned the hard way the highest rule of character development:

There’s always a reason.

Now don’t think the reason has to be logical. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your character must react in a way that many, if not even most, people would agree with. Which leads me to part two of this all-mighty rule:

The reason must be consistent with who the character is.

We’ve all read and seen it, in our own work and in others. We become so fixated on a character behaving in a certain way that we forget who he or she is at their core.

Sure, it would be wonderful if Girl accepts Boy’s proposal. We know he’s a nice fellow, and we like him, and heck, so does she. We know this! But we also know that Girl has major abandonment issues and is terrified of having her heart broken, so when she declines Boy’s proposal and ruins her best chance at love, we are angry, maybe even furious, but we understand that this is what she would do. This is consistent with who she is and who we have come to know her to be. If she ran off with him and lived happily ever after at this point we’d feel a bit, well, confused. And anytime a reader steps mentally and emotionally away from a character to question his or her motivations, the magic fades.

I have a little trick when it comes to this. I imagine that every time my character does or says or thinks something, I’ll be subjected to a pop quiz to explain why (this might have something to do with being married to a teacher). It works every time, and with every character.

Now your turns. Anyone else spend time with a pesky character who did the right thing, instead of the right-for-them thing?

Conversely, I have absolutely no reason at all for posting this picture of the cheese blintzes we had for breakfast this morning except that I’ve been noticing a distinct lack of food images on this blog and feeling badly for it. The blintzes are a family recipe and a favorite (What I’d serve if I had a restaurant). If anyone wants it, let me know. I’ll be more than happy to post.

Cheese Blintzes. Yes. Please.

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Lately I’ve been struggling with a flashback scene of two characters, a man and a woman, who ultimately become lovers but who are, in the scene I’m now writing, merely teenagers fumbling through their first date.

I’m finding it tough. Excruciating, actually. Not because I don’t love these two people (I do) and not because I don’t have all the faith in the world that they belong together (because they do). What has me so at odds is how to write age-appropriate dialog for them. I cannot seem to “write down.”

I don’t know about you, but nothing drives me battier than when I read dialog of young characters who have the wit and vocabulary and general worldliness of people FIVE TIMES THEIR AGE.

Now I know today’s teenagers are savvy. Very savvy. They are much sharper and far more informed than I ever was, even in those uber-angst John Hughes years. But really. In any era. In any century. Gramaphone or Ipod, teenagers have to talk like teenagers.

And yet, here I am! Finding myself in danger of committing my peeve. I repeatedly make our hero and heroine too witty, their banter too clever, their interests too unlikely. Because I know how to write them at forty. The trick is figuring out how to write them with that same attraction, that same connection, at seventeen.

Anyone else have or have had this dilemma in your writing? Do you agree that it’s hard to write authentic dialog for characters who are out of your age group, be it older or younger? Are you often tempted to make their conversations smarter/sexier/wittier/generally more or less mature than you know is believable?

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