Holiday Traditions

I love dessert. It’s my favorite meal. In fact, if I could eat sweets instead of real food, I would. My sweet tooth lends itself to my fancy for baking. If you ask me to bake you anything, I will. If you ask me to make you dinner, my skin starts to itch, my eye twitches and suddenly the idea of cutting the grass with a pair of scissors becomes very appealing.

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These are my Tarallis. 

Christmastime provides me a good excuse to stretch my baking wings. All the possible cookie choices! Some years I make more than others, but every year I make Tarallis. Those are Italian buttery cookies my family has made for decades. The Tarallis are a popular southern Italy cookie (my baking family is from Calabria) and can be made in varying ways. My way is best. Just so there’s no confusion and also why I won’t link you to someone else’s site about them. So, if you’re interested in learning more about these or other Italian cookies, you’re on your own this time.

Why are mine the best? Because of my grandfather. Pop-Pop was a baker by trade and an excellent one. (I’m not showing favoritism either. Anyone who ate his pastries and cakes would have told you the same.) He was also one of my favorite people in the whole world. He taught me how to bake. (Among other things like how to drive and to stay away from boys.) He taught me to bake by marching over, assessing my progress, grabbing whatever was in my hand and saying in his heavy Italian accent only strangers heard and with complete love, “What are you doing? Let me do that.” That was when I took a step back and handled the clean up.

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Me and Pop-Pop maybe 1997ish

I lost him seventeen years ago. Christmas and those Tarallis give me an excuse to bake and when I bake I feel like I’m spending time with him. He is the person I think of as I crack an egg, or line a pan with parchment paper, or make sure I stir in only one direction. I don’t like to let this time of year go by without baking something. If I had my way, he’d be baking with me (though he’d be 95 now. Not sure how much baking he’d be doing.) But that’s not the way the story goes. Instead, my holiday tradition has been to bake in his memory and hopefully the results would do him proud.

(Here’s a little irony, I think the original recipe for those cookies that I, my mother, my sister, and my aunt use might be from my Aunt Genny on my grandmother’s side. But who cares?? I’m still baking. sticks tongue out here.)

What are your holiday traditions? What makes your holiday complete? Who do you share them with?

 

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Editing Tip Tuesday yet again on Wednesday.

Your villain has to be three dimensional.

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We spend a lot of time making our protagonist(s) multi-dimensional. We give them heroic characteristics, flaws, quirks, and even pets. We assign our heroes and heroines an emotional wound that they must overcome by story’s end. (If you haven’t done any of these things for your protagonist, email me. We need to talk.)

But you need to do the same thing for your villains. Nothing is more boring than a one-dimensional bad guy or gal. A bad guy who’s bad for the sake of it. You can only see so much of that before you shut the book or turn the channel.

I’m a fan of The Walking Dead for lots of reasons, none of which are all that important for this blog post. But they’re killing me with season seven and I’m about to stop watching. There’s a new bad guy in town. His name is Negan played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. At first I thought, “wow, he must be having a blast playing this guy.” After six episodes I said, “He must get tired of doing the same thing over and over.” You see, Negan is bad for bad’s sake. Boring. We get it. He’s made his point. The first time we see Negan his level of bad (and some really good stage makeup) makes us cringe and back up from the television. Now I just want to get to the point where our heroes kick his butt. I don’t care about the stuff in the middle of that. There’s nothing sympathetic about Negan. At least not so far. There will be sixteen episodes maybe the writers will give us a little backstory on this guy, but for now, I’m not interested. He’s just a one-dimensional character walking around with a baseball bat and threatening to kill everyone if they don’t give up their belongings. He’s a bully. Boring. Did I say, boring? (This is in no way a knock on Mr. Morgan’s acting abilities. He’s doing a great job with what he’s got to work with.) Here’s a clip of Negan for your viewing pleasure.

One of the best bad guys I’ve ever seen was Joe Carroll from The Following played by James Purefoy. First off we have to give a round of applause to Mr. Purefoy’s fantastic portrayal of the sympathetic psychopath. Few actors call pull off playing such an evil person we’re willing to route for. But he couldn’t have done such a great job without some very good writing. Joe Carroll was a cold-blooded killer and he had a slew of people willing to kill for him. But, gosh darn it, we liked this guy. We didn’t want him to win really, I mean, what would that say about us, but the writers gave us a multi-dimensional character. Yes, he was a total scary guy, but he also loved his wife and son very much. Nothing was to happen to them. He wanted a family and he wanted his family safe. He wanted to be a dad to his young boy. Who doesn’t love a man trying to be a good father? It worked. I couldn’t get enough of Joe Carroll and I routed for him till the end. (Of course, I wanted Kevin Bacon to catch him. I mean, come on, it’s Kevin Bacon!) Here’s a clip of Joe Carroll for your viewing pleasure. 

Do you have a villain who is nothing more than a cardboard cut-out with a greasy mustache who throws his head back and laughs a hearty laugh? Or do you have someone whose mother tried to choke him while he slept when he was only four, whose father shot himself in the only bathroom in their apartment when our bad-guy was coming home from the second-grade? Did your bad guy trust a teacher only to find out the teacher was a psychopath in-training? Was your bad guy bullied, beaten, burned? Does he love dogs, but not people? Ask yourself, what does my bad guy want? Maybe it’s just to be loved. Make us care about this person. You’ll have us hooked from the beginning willing and ready to go for a long ride with you.

Any questions?

It’s Editing Tip Tuesday!

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I hope everyone had a very nice Thanksgiving. I’m trying to get back into the swing of work this week, but I’m still suffering from Turkey Coma. (That’s a real thing. Ha ha.)

I’m a big believer everything happens for a reason. Probably because it lets me think there’s some sense of control in the world. Random activity is a scary thing for me.

And random activity in your novel is also a scary thing. Events cannot happen willy nilly. Everything in your novel must be there for a reason. And the reason can’t be, “But Stacey, I needed that to happen!” You might need your character to get across a lake in a boat, but if you told us the last boat on the lake was in 1920 and its 2016 a boat can’t randomly appear for your benefit.

Nope. You’ll have to explain there was an ordinance in place because a young man drowned in that lake never allowing boats to sail there again. Your main character can’t swim, and it would take too darn long to walk around the lake. If he’s going to save the maiden in time he needs a boat so he’s been planning, since the maiden’s kidnapping which is your inciting incident and happening early on in the story, on how to get a boat in the lake. The boat can’t just appear. Or, a long lost relative can’t show up on the scene with that boat. Too convenient. Your character has to fight and kick for that boat knowing if he doesn’t get it in the lake in time, that maiden is going to die. Got me?

Leave random acts for kindness. For your novel, every word counts. Say it with me, EVERY WORD COUNTS.

Any questions?

Editing Tip Tuesday. On Tuesday for a Change

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Setting.

Is setting a character in your story? It should be. Setting flushes out the story. It grounds us in the moment. We want to see, hear, and smell what the character does. Don’t try to be suspenseful with your setting. You won’t draw your reader in by making them wonder where the character is. Unless we’re two-thirds into a thriller novel and our heroine wakes up knowing nothing except she’s encased in a dark space that smells like freshly cut pine.

Showing setting through your character’s eyes tells us about the character. Setting can show pain, discomfort, nostalgia, joy, familiarity. Every character in the story should see the setting differently. Think about it. Do you see the world exactly the same way your best friend does? I see a tent pitched in the middle of the woods as a torture treatment and an opportunity for serial killers. My husband sees that same setting as an adventure to be experienced. Go figure.

But don’t worry about how well the setting shines in your first draft. Just put down anything. Keep it simple if setting isn’t your thing. Then go back and spend some time with it. Close your eyes and imagine how the character feels in that room or house or farm.

And if setting really escapes you and you want to pull your hair out of your head every time you have to describe a new place then find authors who do setting the way you’d like to and study them. Don’t copy. It won’t sound true to your voice. Study. And practice. Writing is a practice and a journey along a flat road where your tires kick up sand and the smell of salt thickens the air. Sea gulls squawk an early morning greeting while the sun paints the sky in pink.

Any questions?

Weird Relatives

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Thanksgiving is only three weeks away. I can’t believe it really. I’m not sure where October went. I know I showed up everyday for the entire month, but I didn’t do anything exciting like jet off to Europe and walk the runway. (They won’t let me on the runway. One, I’m too short. Two, I’m too old, and Three, well, let’s just say I had to do a lot of fancy foot work to get the records expunged.)

I love Thanksgiving. It’s one of my favorite holidays. Probably because it’s the one time of year I make stuffing and everyone loves my stuffing. How that happened, I have no idea, but far be it for me to argue when I’m getting a compliment. I also love the Macy’s Parade. I have a thing for parades. Probably dates back to my baton twirling days. But I digress.

Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving. The weird relatives have to come out. We can hide them all year long and pretend Aunt Sally doesn’t exist, but on Thanksgiving we have to unlock the attic door and allow her to see the light. We can handle Aunt Sally for one day, right? Yeah right. Until she yanks the turkey leg straight from the body of the bird and starts chasing Uncle Arthur around the table spewing those chants she thinks keep turkey spirits away. Yeah, you know what I mean.

I like to think of weird relatives as characters in a play. Everyone has a role. We have the director. That’s usually me. We have the carver. The carver likes to play with knives and has a hidden fetish for Sweeney Todd. There’s the sensible one. Her food isn’t allowed to touch on the plate which means several trips back and forth into the kitchen where she carefully washes her plate before she tries the mashed potatoes and the corn. And of course there’s Aunt Sally. I try to cast her as an understudy, but there’s no stopping that woman once she gets her hands on that bird.

How boring would Thanksgiving be if we didn’t break bread with our weird relatives? I mean, come one, no one actually plays football on the front lawn while the food is cooking like normal people do they?

And what about the stragglers? Or as I lovingly refer to them, the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. There’s Bob. We love Bob. Bob has no partner, no children, no relatives anyone can identify. He belongs to no social groups and the one he tried to join asked him politely to leave. He comes to Thanksgiving dinner every year in his plaid suit jacket complete with elbow patches. He sports the infamous comb over now beginning under his ear instead of above it. What I can’t figure out is why he brings his briefcase with him. I don’t ask. I just show him to his spot next to Aunt Sally. At least he doesn’t eat with his hands. Though he does allow the gravy to touch the cranberry sauce so he can’t sit next to the sensible one. We tried that once. It ended badly.

I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving’s display of weird relatives. It’s only at Thanksgiving that I am serenaded by the constant sucking of one’s teeth. I’ll keep that relative nameless. They read the blog.

So, faithful reader, who will be sitting at your Thanksgiving table this year? And please provide pictures.

Editing Tip Tuesday

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Lights, Camera, Action!

We often see in movies two characters walk into a restaurant, sit down at a table, order food and eat it. Other than the famous scene in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally  most times the eating scene doesn’t do anything to move the story forward. It’s usually a chance for the characters to recap what they, and the audience, already knows. That same technique doesn’t usually work in a novel.   Check out the When Harry Met Sally scene here.

The action a writer includes in a novel must go to work for them. Action needs to move the story forward. Moving around in a scene isn’t action. Really think about what your characters are doing and how their actions show who they are. If your heroine hangs her little black bag on a hook in a restaurant make sure that action shows something about who she is. Did the bag cost her a month’s salary to buy because she doesn’t want the people at the event to know she’s struggling for money? Is the floor too dirty for her? Is she worried that someone will steal it because she’s been robbed before? Just putting the bag on the hook to give your heroine something to do is a waste of good words.

Take the glass of wine. Your heroine is at a party. The wine is flowing. Having her take constant sips while she trades dialogue with another character doesn’t do anything to move the story forward. Sorry. It’s just boring. Ask yourself, is your character uncomfortable? Have her tap the glass instead. Does she have a bad habit of clinking the glass against her teeth? Is she allergic to wine along with a long list of other things and doesn’t want to tell her date? Or maybe she grew up on the property of a winery and the smell reminds her of the bad things that happened to her behind the tank room. Now we know something about the character and suddenly we’re interested.

Take another look at that scene in When Harry Met Sally. While Sally is talking, she is removing the excess meat from her sandwich. At this point in the movie, we know she has a very unique way of ordering her food and she “wants things the way she wants them.” That gesture goes right to her character and it isn’t wasted time on the screen.

I often edit stories with stagnant action. And in a first draft, go ahead and put it down because no one is going to read your first draft. Right? But when you go back and you know your characters better make different and unique choices for them.

Any questions?

Editing Tip Tuesday. Yes, I know it’s Thursday.

penandpaperThe Outline

Some writers outline and some make things up as they go along. I’m the first kind because when I try to be the second kind I end up down a giant, dark hole with no way out except for the use of the delete button. That’s a scary place to be for me.

I created a formal template of the outline I used on my last novel, The Second Chance House, and thought I’d share the outline with you. My novel is out in submission now, let’s keep our fingers crossed it finds the right home. I would like to use the outline again when I begin the second book in the series. Because I had done much of the work upfront, there was much less to edit on the back end. Oh, there was stuff to edit for sure, but I wasn’t trying to claw my way out of the black hole like I had in the last novel in my middle-grade series, Welcome To Skull Mountain

The outline is not mine alone. I took pieces from gay romance author Damon Suede, (Damon is a fantastic writer and very funny. I’ve sat through several of his workshops.) And I took pieces from Cathy Yardley’s book Rock Your Plot. I like Cathy’s simplistic approach to explaining writing.

Here’s what I came up with:

Inciting Incident: The moment that changes the hero/heroine forever. Nothing is the same after this moment.

Plot Point One: Protagonist takes on the problem, but has no idea how to go about handling it.

Midpoint: Protagonist seems on the verge of achieving goal until everything falls apart. The protagonist is now proactive instead of reactive to the inciting incident. He/she can only be proactive by learning something new. The midpoint is a time to increase conflict.

Plot Point Two: Protagonist pushed into the spot from which success seems impossible. This should be the last big reveal of information and sets up the protagonist for the big dramatic conclusion. (You can’t reveal info after this point that hasn’t been set up already. Nothing can come in as a surprise to solve the problem.)

Black Moment/Climax: The worst possible thing has happened to the protagonist. All must seem lost at this point and the goal of the novel must seem unattainable.

Resolution: The breather. The world is restored to order and the protagonists can take a deep breath, and enjoy reaching their goal.

The outline is overly simplified, but it kept me on track. I filled in the blanks for every plot layer and subplot I had making sure every thread wound up at the climax of the story. This way the black moment effected everyone’s goals.

An outline might not speak to you. That’s okay. There is no right or wrong way to write a book. Find the method that works and try it. You may have a different method for each book you write. That’s fine too.

Any questions?