Perfectly Plated

I watch a lot of YouTube videos (like the Tasty and BuzzFeed Channels) and Netflix shows (The Great British Baking Show) on cooking. You’d think I would be a culinary expert by now. Naw. I’m still just an average cook.

        

When I was a kid, my parents had insisted that I learn to cook. I don’t mean throwing a frozen dinner into the microwave or oven. I mean baking a chicken, preparing rice, sautéing onions, baking biscuits—that sort of thing.

For my friends in Europe, I mean this type of biscuit.

Not this.

But I’ve never been very innovative in the kitchen. Not like my sister-in-law, who loves to experiment. (I’m going somewhere with this. Don’t worry.)

Anyway, as I mentioned, I watch a lot of videos featuring culinary artists—people who went to school to master the art of food preparation. Other than the taste of a dish, nothing showcases a chef’s artistry like a well-plated meal. What do I mean by that?

According to an article entitled, “A Basic Guide to Food Presentation” at Webstaurantstore.com (click here for it):

People eat with their eyes, and creative and thoughtful plating enhances both the look and taste of your food. Focusing on presentation also allows chefs to showcase their creations and demonstrate to guests that they’re getting their money’s worth.

The article from which that quote came from has great tips on color and contrast, choosing the right plate, etc. That’s why you’ll sometimes see chocolate drizzled on a dessert plate, or your entrée artfully presented with the vegetables tucked up nicely. (Unlike what you see in the photo below.)

My usual idea of plating. Get your grub on, y’all.

  

The real deal done by experts

I love that chefs go the extra mile to make a dining experience special and to make food preparation an art form. While I’m unlikely to drizzle chocolate on a plate anytime soon (I’d much rather drizzle it in my mouth), I am inspired to go the extra mile in what I write.

I’m not sure what the literary equivalent of plating might be. Perhaps it starts with a resolve to write the best piece you can.

Speaking of resolutions, onto the winner of Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s novel Dirt Cheap, which was discussed in this guest post.

        

The winner, according to the lovely random number generator, is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Laura Bruno Lilly!

Congratulations, Laura! Please comment below to confirm!

Henry’s idea of plating—just candy in a bag, baby! (I hear you, Henry!)

Pillsbury biscuits from betterbatter.org. Tea biscuits from clipartkid.com. Tasty YouTube logo from YouTube. BuzzFeed logo from siliconangle.com. Great British Baking Show logo found at thats-normal.com. Plated desserts found on Pinterest. Other photos by L. Marie.

Guest Post: Resolved to Be Prolific

Today, I am happy to introduce a guest post by the marvelous Lyn Miller-Lachmann. (Check out her previous guest post here.) Stick around to the end and I’ll tell you about a giveaway of one of Lyn’s novels.

I don’t have a great record for achieving New Year’s Resolutions. The average attainment rate for those pledges to improve one’s fitness/relationships/life is around 20%, and mine may be even lower. But I have a standing resolution, one that I’ve dutifully kept since 2000. I’ve resolved to keep writing and revising my fiction no matter what.

My resolution grew out of my decision 10 years earlier to quit. When I graduated from college, I vowed to write the Great American Novel. Ten years later I’d written and extensively revised three entire book manuscripts—one adult and two young adult, after an agent who took me on thought the best characters in my adult manuscript were the teens. She and I parted ways after the next manuscript didn’t sell, and when I self-published it—a novelty at the time—I went through three revisions of a third YA manuscript with an editor at a major house before she backed out citing exasperation at our persistent miscommunication. Having come so close to selling a manuscript, I gave up in despair.

I wrote reference books and textbooks for those 10 years in the creative desert, but without creating stories I felt something missing from my life. After finding myself writing my middle school-age son’s creative writing assignments, I decided to try again and this time never to give up. I stripped the core of that first adult novel and turned it into a subplot of an eco-thriller that I wrote and rewrote multiple times until it became my debut novel, Dirt Cheap (Curbstone Press, 2006).

Apparently, I’m pretty average in that my fourth full-length novel manuscript became my first published novel. And I needed all those manuscripts, rewritten over and over, to develop my craft. Recently, I’ve read the accounts of debut novelists whose eighth, tenth, or twelfth full manuscript was the first to find a home. These are heartening stories because they show perseverance, dedication, and the truth that at a certain level of craft, publishing is a lottery of having the right book at the right moment, and the more lottery tickets one holds, the better the chance of winning a prize.

So when Bad Things happened to me—smaller publishers going out of business, a poor match with a large publisher, unsold manuscript after manuscript—I found myself taking their stories to heart. Rather than quit, I tried new things. I now have, finished and mostly finished and gone out on submission, two contemporary chapter-book proposals with sample chapters, a full YA contemporary novel, three YA historical novels, and seven picture books. I’ve approached two authors with ideas for collaborations and have just started an own voices picture book for one of those collaborations. In 2018, I completed two-thirds of a draft of my first novel in verse. Before I started it, I’d never realized how much I’d enjoy writing not only the verse novel but also poetry in general. Like my protagonist in the verse novel, I’ve joined a Poetry Club, a group of people who write a poem each week in response to a prompt.

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Rather than giving up, I’ve resolved to be prolific. The more things I have ready to go out, the more chances I have of hearing the word “yes.” I’ve also looked into self-publishing again.

My plan right now is to write. Write the story that speaks to me, the one only I can tell, and tell it with passion and skill.

Then worry about what to do with it.

* * *
As a treat for all of you who’ve read this far, I offer one of the poems I wrote for my Poetry Club in response to a picture prompt that I chose, a photo my daughter, a teacher, took on a family heritage trip to Berlin and Prague. The photo is from an exhibit at the Museum of Communism in Prague, Czech Republic, of the last day of primary school in the 1960s.

CHILDREN RUNNING OUT OF SCHOOL FOR THE SUMMER


When the final bell rings
children burst from the door
running
screaming
throwing ragged, used-up notebooks
backward
over their shoulders.

The best student in the class
waves his report card
boasting to his friends
of the present
his parents
will buy him.

The inseparable blond girls
make plans for the summer
the letters they’ll write
when one goes to camp
and the other stays home.

Behind the open door
the quiet, dark-haired boy
unwraps the chain
from his bicycle.

He had hoped to make a friend
this year.

He will go home to the line of books
he’d arranged
in alphabetical order
on his shelf.
Tales of heroes in magical worlds
where they can dream and hope
and their dreams and hopes
come true.
Tales of real heroes
of the times of his father
and his father’s father
who struggled and triumphed
when everything
seemed lost.

The quiet, dark-haired boy
will read these books
and they will save him.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the eco-thriller Dirt Cheap and three novels for teens—Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago, and Rogue—and a translator from Portuguese and Spanish to English of children’s books, screenplays, poetry, and academic articles. Gringolandia—the story of a refugee teenager from Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and his relationship with his father, a just-released political prisoner—was an Américas Award Honor Book and selected for the ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list in 2010. She reviews for The Pirate Tree and blogs on travel, politics, and writing at www.lynmillerlachmann.com.

* * *
Hi! Me again! (L. Marie, in case you’re wondering.) I’m giving away a copy of Lyn’s adult novel, Dirt Cheap. So it will be dirt cheap for you, since it’s free. Ha ha! I crack myself up. 😀 😁 Anyway, comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on January 14.

Click here to find a synopsis of Dirt Cheap.

Photos courtesy of Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Author photo by Joan Heffler. Book image from somewhere online.

Happy New Year—2019

This represents what I’ll be doing in 2019—crocheting, writing, and sending Henry to terrorize villagers (not necessarily in that order)

Oh who am I kidding? With a face like Henry’s, who would be terrified?

Villagers serenade Henry with songs usually reserved for places like Whoville.

Praying—something else I plan to do a lot in 2019—could not be photographed, so pretend this emoji 🙏 is in the photo.

As I write this post, my email inbox is full of videos, newsletters, and blog posts all about the best or worst of 2018. Some of the above involve people making resolutions to do useful activities (losing weight, reading more, traveling more, writing more, socializing more).

I admire the work these individuals put into reviewing the previous year or writing goals for 2019. But a careful assessment of 2018 is not something you’ll find here. Under my given name (L. Marie is my pen name), I’ve got projects due this week and in the next two weeks. So, I’ll take the easy way out and show a photo that pretty much sums up 2018 for me, only with fewer snacks. (Wish I could’ve included a sound effect like a scream.)

If you’re wondering about the quote on the paper weight next to Kitty, it is this:

In many ways, I feel like I’m in a cocoon/chrysalis. No idea what sort of moth or butterfly may emerge in 2019. But the other day, I was inspired by a quote on the lid of my McDonald’s sweet tea:

The days ahead beckon us to look for moments we can sip for joy—moments where we look toward the possibilities and not just the problems; moments where we sip the sweetness of a sunrise or a child’s laughter.

Like the Skittles wrapper below says, try to look on the . . .

(If you can. I understand that life can be rather difficult sometimes.)

Happy New Year!

Twiggy

In the 1960s, a model from London named Lesley Lawson became a fashion icon. Oh, perhaps you don’t recognize the name. Maybe the name Twiggy will jar your memory. However, if the 1960s was a decade your parents or grandparents remember (rather than you), you probably still have no clue who this is. Back then Twiggy was known for her waiflike look. Even today, some vie for the Twiggy look.

Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images

During my Sunday drive, I couldn’t help thinking of Twiggy with every deciduous tree I passed. Bare, vulnerable branches reached toward the gray sky, which brightened to blue in the afternoon.

Winter strips all of the pomp out of a tree. The circumstance is survival as a tree sheds its leaves and tucks into itself to wait for spring. But in their winter starkness, you can readily see the lovely “bones” of a tree.

In grad school, I had an advisor who did to my sentences what winter does to a tree. I had a habit of trying to get all fancy with my writing, adding phrases I thought grand. My advisor would send me feedback like, “This is crap,” which stripped all of the pomp out of me. Lest you get indignant on my behalf (or you just feel like chortling at the baldness of that statement), she was right. (I almost typed write.) I wanted to sound good, to show the world, “Hey look at me. I can use figurative language to dress up my writing” (though it made no sense character-wise). There is nothing wrong with figurative language. But as my advisor pointed out, if I couldn’t write a basic sentence—one with good “bones” like a solid action verb and a clear subject; one that fits the narrative well, instead of drawing attention to itself simply because it exists to feed my ego—what’s the point? She wanted to feel something, but couldn’t, thanks to my pretentious language.

So that’s why the twiggy-ness of trees moves me. Trees are so well designed, so graceful in their form. Starkness becomes them—and good sentences.

  

Twiggy photo from thegloss.com. Tree photos by L. Marie.

Writing Outside the Box

Having made the decision to write a middle grade novel starring a preteen boy, someone of the opposite sex and generation, I found myself falling into dangerous territory. You know—the territory marked with generalities. “Boys like to do such and such (play sports and videogames, speak one sentence for every eight a girl might utter). Therefore, I can make him do such and such.” This was simply because many of the boys I know (or knew awhile back) did those things.

Horror of horrors, I had written myself into a box. The result was a character as fake as snow in a can.

This

is not this.

How dumb, right? Generalities are not true of all; therefore, you can’t build a good character that way. Only by spending time with boys this age (and those older and younger) did the revelation hit: I needed to stop seeing this character as a stock character—as by-the-numbers as box cake mix—and see him as an individual whose heart and mind I could reveal. (And before you get ready to scream at me, I like many box cake mixes, particularly when someone else does the baking, and adds his or her own touches to make it special. But I digress.)

Case in point, I had to a pick a kid up from school a few times. Both parents were busy, so they asked me if I could pick him up and stay with him until one of them returned home. Now, many people who know this kid are of the belief that he barely talks. Not so. He talked for almost an hour about a Legend of Zelda game. I was the one who barely said a word other than, “Really? . . . Huh. . . . And then what?” He then segued to how much he loved creating music mixes using the software on his computer.

Link from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Other things I discovered: Yes, watching a Barbie video was torture for him, no matter how much his younger sister begged him. And no, he would rather not play baseball or football. Dodge ball? He was the king. Badminton and volleyball? Yup. You could sign him up.

I love this kid! Thanks to him, I felt encouraged to think outside of the box—to avoid relying on generalities—to make my character someone a reader might care about. Someone who seems real.

   

What do you do to go outside of the box as you develop a character? I would appreciate any tips you might have, especially if you’re writing about a character who is very different from you.

Link is from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild wiki. Duncan Hines cake mix found somewhere on the internet, thanks to bing.com. Other photos by L. Marie. The mini figures are My Mini MixieQs by Mattel. Carrying case also by Mattel.

The Supple Writer

Reading Nicki Chen’s great post on killing your darlings (click here for it) got me to thinking—always the sign of a great post. What was I thinking about? Being supple as a writer.

sup·ple
adjective
bending and moving easily and gracefully; flexible.

This is not a post telling people what to do or how to be. This is just a reflection on how life sometimes makes you into what you never thought you could be.

I’ve worked as a writer for two book packagers (click here if you aren’t sure what a book packager is) over the years (and publishers too). Rule #1: please the client. You write a book. Client says, “Hmmm. It’s okaaaaaay. But I want you to make changes.” You rewrite the book. Client says, “Hmmm. Still just okay. I want you to make changes.” You rewrite your rewrite. Client says, “Hmm. I liked it better the first time.” You pull out the first version of the book, having learned the hard way to always save every version of a project until the thing is published.

Gemma Stone after her last revision—badly in need of chocolate, coffee, and maybe a warm towel to throw over her face. Oh and maybe a hug.

Fickle clients? No, this is you on the treadmill of writing, learning that darlings get killed over and over, while your writer muscles get exercised. Not just darlings. Stuff you were just on a first date with. Gone.

Apple Blossom wonders what to change next in her manuscript since she’s been told to drop 5K words.

This is you, mainlining coffee and M&Ms as you work to meet each deadline, some of them as fierce as tigers, growling at you sooner than you would have liked (like you have a month or two to do the whole thing, despite having to revise two or three times).

Pinkie Pie is on the fourth revision of her novel. She thinks maybe the chicken could write the book better by now.

Supple—when you learn how to write a picture book three different ways because you had to.

Supple—when you get the word from on high to start the whole thing over just because.

Supple—when you’re waiting on feedback that might mean having to go to Plan B.

When have you had to be flexible in your writing? Please tell the full tale in the comments below.

Another post on killing your darlings: https://thewritepractice.com/kill-your-darlings/

Photos by L. Marie. Pinkie Pie is from the My Little Pony Equestria Girls Minis Pinkie Pie Slumber Party Bedroom Set by My Little Pony. Gemma Stone Shoppie and Apple Blossom by Moose Toys.

Building a Unicorn

Over the past year or so I’ve bought or been given unicorns by friends.

    

Just writing that statement makes me laugh because it sounds so ridiculous—or would have if you and I were talking on the phone and you did not see the above photos. It sounds like, “Yes, I own some unicorns. They’re parked out back.”

Lately, I’ve been crocheting a unicorn for a little girl’s unicorn-themed birthday party. The pattern was designed by ChiWei at OneDogWoof. You can find her blog here.

First, you crochet the head, then the ears, and the alicorn (what the horn was called way back when).

Next comes the body, which takes almost twice as long as the head, then the legs and hooves (both thankfully crocheted in one piece).

   

Lastly, you have to crochet the tail (made of multiple curlicues) and cut strands of yarn for the mane. I chose this yarn. A unicorn must have a rainbow tail and mane.

   

Once all of the pieces are crocheted, I have to build the unicorn—at least that’s what I think of the assembly process, which involves a lot of whip stitching to keep the pieces together.

It’s sort of like the process of writing a story with a unicorn as a character. Okay. I see that look. You’re thinking these processes are very different. But character building of any sort involves putting pieces together: characteristics of people you know, characteristics from your imagination; quirks of your character that affect relationships with other characters; dialects shaped by the setting; etc.

I have loved unicorns since I was a kid. I wrote a fairy tale about unicorns probably twenty years ago for my own amusement. But that was then and this is now. When I made the decision to include unicorns in a more recent novel, I did some research.

Maybe you wonder why I would bother. Aren’t unicorns pretty standard? Though they come from the mythology of many countries, they all seem to heal with the horn on their head and seem ethereal. Well, the thought of writing about a “typical” unicorn, one like cream floating on a breeze, offering a healing touch without saying or doing anything else, was not very inviting. I wanted to write about unicorns that had more personality.

I read books by Diana Peterfreund who has a killer unicorn series for young adults. Not killer in the slang sense of “That dress is killer,” but in the sense of “those unicorns kill people.” You can find details about it here.

I also read this series (photos below), which has more books than just the ones shown here. I love one snippy warrior unicorn character who demanded vows of service from people in exchange for assistance. So much for giving away free stuff like healing. I love a feisty unicorn.

   

Well, I’d better get back to getting the mane situated on this unicorn. It’s going to take awhile. (The unicorn might look small on the photo. But it is about 15 inches tall.)

What do you think of unicorns? Do you like to read stories about them? Are you indifferent to them? Please share your thoughts below.

Rampant book cover from Goodreads. Other photos by L. Marie.