The Uber Cookie: Can Your Characters Bake?

I don’t bake a lot. I cook, but my brand of cooking is generally Southern and simple. We eat everyday things like tacos, spaghetti, chicken tenders, that kind of thing. Occasionally I will go out on a limb and make homemade salad dressing. The other night I made homemade croutons. My fare is simple.

I don’t bake. It’s time-consuming, and since we could all stand to lose a few pounds, I just don’t mess with it. But tonight the kids wanted something sweet, and I hadn’t been to the store, so I decided to make some cookies. Below I want to explain the decision-making process that led to the creation of the Uber Cookie.

CookieThe original recipe was from the back of a bag of chocolate chips, and went something like this:

  • 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour (1st mistake — I used self-rising)
  • 1 tsp salt (left out — because I used self-rising)
  • 1 tsp baking soda (left out — because I used self-rising)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened (I used 1/4 of this)
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar (used about one cup)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar (omitted)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (forgot)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups chocolate chips (used about 1/2 that)
  • 1 cup chopped nuts (left out)
  • Added 1/4 cup oil to make up for missing butter
  • Added 1/2 cup applesauce to make up for missing butter and add more sweetness

So, amazingly enough, out of a ten-item recipe, only one item I got right, and that’s the two large eggs. I plopped those cookies down on a baking sheet, sort of like drop cookies, and baked them. I left them a good distance apart, but once the batter heated up, the spread was on.

Was it a cookie? Was it a cake? Or somewhere in between? The consistency was almost like a dry cake or an airy cookie. It was sweet, but not too sweet. The best word that my husband could come up with was odd. The kids were fascinated with them. They were really excited that I made the cookies.

The next time you have a failure in your kitchen, think about it from your character’s perspective. I’m not a ditz. I know that to have something come out right you have to follow the recipe. I ran into trouble when I didn’t have enough butter, and I didn’t realize until I had already committed. The self-rising flour I thought would be okay to substitute. My daughter was helping, and she would have been really disappointed if I had changed my mind. So, yes, I knew I was in uncharted territory and they may not have been edible, but sometimes you’ve just got to experiment.

So how would an OCD character handle it? Throw the batter away when she realized she didn’t have the butter? Or go across to the neighbor’s and borrow it?

My husband ate a cookie, pronounced them odd, and we had a good laugh. But what if he were a jerk about it? What if I had been trying really hard and he had said I was worthless because I couldn’t bake simple cookies? Would that be the beginning of a drawn-out ugly fight? Would that be the beginning of a female character finding her self-worth again?

Or what about the OCD widower, whose former wife’s sister is a clutzy aunt who is taking care of the kids for the night and they make fun cookies and a huge mess in the kitchen? I could see a Lifetime or Hallmark movie starting with that.

I know. I’m an incurable romantic. How would your character handle a baking experiment gone wrong? Next time you’re stuck, think about it. How do you use your everyday choices in your character’s lives?

Alternate Reality of Fiction

A Feminist Professor’s Closing Chapters

If you are interested, the link above is to a moving description of a woman fighting ovarian cancer. I felt blessed this morning reading her story. I want to pay tribute to her by talking about a quote she has lower in the article.

“I am always happier when I have a book in progress,” she says. “Living with a book in process is like living an alternative reality. You are out of time, it is a kind of transport, a kind of addiction.” (Quote from Susan Gubar, Professor and Feminist at Indiana University)

As a writer, the quote above hit me between the eyes. This is so true!!  I have my reality (my husband of 13 years, two children in those pre-teen years, and a full-time job) and I have my fictional world, which at the moment is careening between Vegas, Miami, Atlanta, and the Bahamas. And when the words are coming, it is an addiction. When the words aren’t coming, I get immersed in my life and find excuses not to look at the Word file taking up space on my netbook.

I’m working right now on the story arc, morphing a series of random events into a compelling story.  Because in fiction, it has to all tie together, it has to make sense, and it has to be compelling.  No one cares if a couple starts dating, decide to date exclusively, fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after with 2.2 kids, a dog and a cat.  There’s no drama.  There’s no story. But throw in some betrayal, missing corporate funds, and a sister who is somehow connected and now missing, and you’ve got something.  I hope.

Busting Up the Concrete

Image

I took this picture where I work a few days ago. Look at this mess. The parking lot was fine, but there were problems with the curbing. To fix the curbing, a whole section of the parking lot had to be dug up and the spaces were unusable. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how perfect the concrete is, you have to bust it up. 

I’m working on a new ending when the current ending worked fine. It was fine, but that’s all it was.  It wasn’t a zinger. It wasn’t wow.  It was more like an ‘eh’. Don’t get me wrong.  I loved parts of it.  But even when I read it in sequence for the first time, part of me knew that I was taking the easy road.  Perhaps I had poured concrete over a large root to a dead tree.  Perhaps I had poured over an uneven area. Over time, it became more and more obvious that i would have to dig up that section and make it better.

But it was paved!  (Sigh). It was a beautiful piece of concrete.  (Insert justification here.) It looked perfect. But the characters whispered to me that this ending wouldn’t hold up to foot traffic.  They didn’t think anyone would buy it.

“I would so not do that,” Windsor told me, her hands on her hips.

“She’ll do it, because she loves me,” Grady said and winked.  That’s when I knew it wasn’t going to work, because Windsor wasn’t there yet, and Grady was still being an ass.

William Faulkner once said “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”  It doesn’t matter how beautiful the writing is, or how cool the scene is, if it doesn’t contribute to the story arc it has to die.  I can’t wait to see my fresh new paving.

Technology in Contemporary Romances

I’m still stuck in editing hell….Here are some more of my thoughts as I plod along tightening language and working on some plot issues.

I have found myself toning back references to technology in my book and trying to be more generic with terms like phone, or SUV instead of a specific model.  I remember I worked on a women’s fiction novel about ten years ago, and had what I call a “bottom-drawer” draft that sat for a few years. Then I pulled it back out after a while and asked my longsuffering husband to take a look at it.  He grunted when I had the male character driving a Dodge Durango. When I wrote it, Durango was the latest fad in SUV’s, but several years later it ahd fallen out of favor, and they even stopped making them for a year to retool.  I also realized that a couple of the phone issues could have been resolved with a quick text, technology that wasn’t in existence when I wrote the first draft.

Technology is a tough call. You want to stay in your character’s voice while at the same time you don’t want to date your story.  Just a few years ago, a Blackberry smartphone was the market leader, especially in the business sector. Now, Apple and Droid are dominating, Two years from now, who knows what the latest craze will be? I’m going back with the generic “smartphone” instead of iPhone.

Social networking is another issue that i see lacking in most of the contemporaries that I’m reading. Facebook and twitter have permeated our culture, but referring to a generic “social network” seems really forced. So I’m thinking at this point most authors are leaving it out.  But what about that critical moment in a modern relationship when it becomes “facebook official?” Or the angst of how much to comment on his page, or potential problems of seeing a guy you have the hots for tagged in a picture with a drop-dead gorgeous beauty?  Since I’ve seen very little mentioned about facebook, I’m curious how authors are handlign it (if at all) in their WIP’s. I’m thinking social networking could eventually replace the tabloid press photos that pop up in so many Harlequin-style contemporaries–I still laugh every time about the ready availability of newspaper gossip pages and incriminating photos. And no, the tabloid press doesn’t hound every single CEO of the Fortune 500.. 

There is even a bigger issue at work here. How many of the plots of Seinfeld would be completely unworkable with a cell phone? Remember the restaurant scene where George tells his date to call the restaurant? There were several episodes where they missed each other where one call to a cell phone would have solved the problem. There was also the 2-line phone storyline, Remember they got lost on the way to a cabin – meet Mr. GPS.

As a reader, I have found myself balking over a misuse of technology. I get frustrated in a contemporary when characters don’t have cell phones–almost everyone does these days unless they are either dirt poor or live in an area where there is no reception.  It’s more believable to me that the battery died, or the signal is unavailable than that they don’t have one.  In one I read recently, the character didn’t have a cell phone and was stranded on the side of the road, but I finally accepted it because the author explained that she had a cell phone for the job she had just quit. But I still thought about it — would anyone I know take off cross-country without even a pay-as-you go phone? I would have believed it better if the character had a phone but had no reception in the desert. I recovered and got back into the story, but it was as jarring as a digital watch in a fourteenth century romance.

Where do we go from here? Maybe some fiction is meant to be dated. I recently read some older romance novels, and they are completely different, both in the levels that intercourse is described (not at all) and the amount of dialogue (very little). The same book has some racist language that few modern editors would let slip through, but it was consistent with the beliefs of the day, which was the turn of the century.

So, remember to give technology and modern issues as much attention as you would for a historical. Make it a little more generic, and pay attention. You don’t want readers questioning your story because the technology is wrong or missing.  If you’re working on it for more than a few years, you may have to rethink some of your technology assumptions. In a few years we will have gay married couples popping up everywhere.

Where do Ideas come from?

Where do Ideas come from?

A writer friend of mine posted this in her blog talking about where her ideas come from. Friends ask me this all the time.  I’ve found my hardest problem is coming up with the main premise, and that often, the main premise or tag line changes completely from what I originally thought.

Once the characters are there, they take on a life of their own. They can create all sorts of problems when they won’t cooperate with what I want them to do! Nonsense, you say, they are your creations. You try telling them that!  If I attempt to go in a direction they’re not interested in, they will clam up and not feed my muse.

The Creative Process ~~ or Roses in the Trash Can

Trashed Roses

Broken Heart, or Dead Flowers?

One of the things about having all of these imaginary people in your head is that they show up in every day life in the oddest places. Yesterday at work I was surprised to see these beautiful roses resting in the wastebasket just inside the restroom door. To me, they still look beautiful. They aren’t dried, they aren’t wilted or faded, and they made the trash smell fabulous. But why were they in the trashcan?

The writer in me envisioned Windsor (the main character in the book I’m editing) tossing these into the trashcan because she was furious with the sender and didn’t want to see any part of him in her office. Would she smell them before she tossed them? Did a thorn catch her finger on the way into the trash? In this little vignette you’ve got four of the five senses: the lush red of the roses, the soft texture of the petals juxtaposed against the sharp thorns, the scent of roses under the antiseptic spray from the restroom, the sound of the leaves crinkling among the plastic of the trash liner… All we are missing is taste. Add in a salty tear… Maybe that’s overkill, or maybe that brings it home.  The anger of tossing the roses, the tear for what might have been…

The real story? The assistant of the woman who threw them away told me that they came from Ecuador in a box, and they had died too quickly.  I guess her standards for roses are higher than mine, because to me they were still beautiful.  My story was better.