Cooking with Strange Ingredients of Questionable Origin

Ugh, I do not feel like I am winning this camp session so far. I don’t think I’m going to not win (yet) but it’s been a slog and I’m quite a bit behind. This nonfiction writing business is kind of a drag. I mean, it’s interesting and stuff, but I feel like I need to do about twenty or thirty minutes of research for every ten words that I write. I knew I would be writing few words this time around and that it would take more research and fact checking, but sheesh. I could really go for just a quick and stupid blitz through draftyville right now, you know?

That said, it hasn’t all been rainclouds and misery these last couple weeks. One of the two nonfiction projects I’m working on is a cookbook, and that means cooking! Furthermore, it means experimental cooking, which is probably the best kind of cooking that there is.

In the interest of keeping the cookbook accessible to normal humans, I can’t do anything too crazy-go-nuts, and that’s kept me reigned in reasonably well. After all the ingredient I’m showcasing here is a little wacky itself- birch syrup. (Who here has heard of birch syrup? Tried it? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to know what you think about it!)

Birch syrup is like the half-sibling between unrelated maple syrup and molasses. It’s got that maple treeishness, and molasses’ kind of minerally tang to it, but has a flavor profile all its own that varies quite a bit from batch to batch. I’ve been working on a series of recipes that bring out its uniqueness, but within the kinds of comfort foods that people already know and love.

Some of the recipes I’m working on are things like birch vinaigrette, birch baked black beans, and birch-infused profiteroles. There are birch caramel popcorn balls, and boreal bliss ice cream, and birch brined moose jerky. (These are my comfort foods, okay?)

My kids’ favorite so far, though, has to be the birch bacon mac and cheese. Sweet and salty and gooey and hot, that double batch I made didn’t stand a chance.

1/2 pound of bacon

1 lb chopped vegetables of choice (broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, etc)

1 lb dry pasta

1/4 c unsalted butter

1/4 c all-purpose flour

2 c whole milk

1/4 c dark birch syrup

1 1/4 c mozzarella cheese

3/4 c cheddar cheese

1.  Boil pasta according to directions, cooking just slightly less than al dente. (I usually find the directions for al dente and then subtract one minute for every five. Bite a piece and if it feel just a bit undercooked, it’s ready.) Drain the pasta and set aside.

2.  Cook bacon in a frying pan over high heat until crisp, about eight minutes. While bacon is cooking, steam vegetables. I typically chop vegetables into chunks about the size of my curled forefinger and steam for five minutes, until they are just a tiny bit crunchier than al dente, like the pasta. Set aside vegetables. Drain bacon, and then chop into bite-sized chunks and set aside.

3.  Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the butter begins to boil, add flour and whisk until the mixture becomes fragrant and turns a light brown, about three minutes. (It’s better to undercook than overcook at this stage. Overcooking with make for a slightly lumpy cheese sauce while little brown flecks, while undercooking is easy to correct with a little extra cooking later. Either way, it will still taste fine.) Slowly whisk in the milk. It may be a little lumpy at first, but keep whisking as the milk comes up to heat and it will smooth out. Whisk constantly as the sauce thickens, taking care that the bottom does not scorch. Turn off heat, but keep pot over burner, and whisk in the birch syrup. The sauce should be a uniform light caramel color.

4.  Add cheese a half cup at a time, allowing it to melt completely and then whisking it in before adding more cheese. Sauce should be thick and gooey; if it is too thick, add two tablespoons of additional milk at a time until desire consistency. (I usually end up adding about an extra half cup of milk at this point, but my family likes a slightly thinner mac.)

5.  Pour the noodles, bacon, and vegetables into the cheese sauce, stirring gently until well coated. Cook over low heat until cheese sauce just begins to bubble and all ingredients are heated through, about five minutes. Serve hot.

Looking for a slightly lighter side dish? Omit the bacon and vegetables, instead adding one teaspoon of salt to the cheese sauce.

Note: While any pasta would taste good with this sauce, different pastas hold sauces differently. When choosing a good mac-and-cheese pasta, pick a “short” pasta, rather than a strand or ribbon pasta, that would cup the sauce and transfer little reservoirs of it into your mouth. Medium-to-large sized tubes or shells (such as penne, conchiglie, or rotini) about the same size as your vegetable and bacon chunks would be about right for this recipe. Alternatively, if omitting the bacon and veggies, you can go for a smaller pasta such as macaroni or campanelle.

PS- If you can’t get your hands on birch syrup (like most of the world outside of extreme northern latitudes), don’t sweat it. This recipe will still be tasty if you use maple syrup or molasses instead. Just, while you’re eating it, you are legally required to think of how much nummier it would be if you had the real deal. Legal truth. *nods*

Until next week, happy writing cooking!

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Seasonal Work

Hi, friends! Boy, summer is a busy time around here. I’ve started my full time work for the summer, hot on the heels of wrapping up a crazy school year. Sadly, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for working on my fiction projects, or even for doing submissions. (Less sad about that second part, honestly, because submissions, ugh.) But some exciting new writing opportunities have cropped up to suck up what little time and brain power I have left at the end of the day.

It’s a change of pace, but it’s interesting to be working on different things. I’ve never done work like this before, and golly, it’s downright refreshing to be getting paid for writing. I am not used to that. Here are a few of my shorter term writing projects that will be keeping me busy this summer!

Developing a Game Narrative I stumbled upon this one entirely on accident. A couple I know runs a design company in Washington. One of their clients made a game but wanted some kind of narrative overlay for it before pitching it to game companies or self producing and didn’t feel equipped to do it himself. They thought of me, and next thing I knew, I had a writing gig! This job is perfect for me because I love writing and I love games, and I basically get to do the fun ‘flavor’ stuff while the game designer does all the hard work. I’ve had a lot of fun pitching different narrative ideas and the client has picked his favorite. Now I get to work on fleshing it out into a full game manual. Whee!

Updating and Rewriting a Manual Honestly, this one is… less fun. That said, I believe the information in the manual is important and I like the people I’m working on it for. The manual is for one of the local nonprofits here in Fairbanks and it’s for the volunteers in their program, but the “current” manual is mega outdated. It’s like ten years old, predating like half of what the program currently does and referencing a bunch of things that it doesn’t do anymore. So it’s definitely due for a refresher. I’m going through it with the program head to figure out exactly what he needs done, and then I’ll go at it. Not the most exciting work, but rewarding in other ways.

Writing a Cookbook! Yaaaay! I’ve been wanting to write a cookbook for years and I’m finally working on one! I’ve spent the last few months getting more and more deeply enmeshed in another local nonprofit, this one all about kids’ education and sustainability and citizen science and art and basically all things that I love. I got involved through my husband’s cousin, who got me mixed up in the springtime birch sap cooperative, and I’ve been weaseling my way in further ever since. When I pitched the idea of a cookbook using the birch syrups that the nonprofit makes and sells to help fund their program, the program director loved it and send me off with a couple bottles of syrup. Guys, I am having a blast experimenting with recipes and bothering local producers about food. Putting together the proposal packet isn’t the funnest, but for real- THE FOOD. Why did I not get into this sooner???

In addition to these three big projects, I wrote up a couple little mini articles last week for the sports shop that I work at, but I haven’t heard back on those yet. We’ll see how it goes. Mostly, they’re just fun to write, haha. They’re pretty much about the ways I goof up my adventures and hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes before getting lost in the mountains in winter or going on a sea kayaking trip without a rain jacket. You know, really complicated things anyone could get wrong.

I feel like everything is so seasonal here in Alaska. The summer world and the winter world are so wildly different, and that profound different-ness (which is def a word, yep) seems to seep into every aspect of my life, including writing. But this year definitely takes the cake on seasonal shifting between projects. Who knows what July’s Camp NaNo project will be? I sure don’t!

How about you fine readers? Any exciting new projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Happy 2019!

resolutions*flings confetti* Wahoo!

Another year down and I haven’t managed to overdose on lemon sandwich cookies and kimchi brine yet! *fist pumps* Man, 2018 had a lot of madness and utter rubbish, but here we are with another shiny new year. Let’s not screw this one up, guys!

All things considered, last year wasn’t too embarrassing as far as resolutions go. I got pretty lazy on my health goals, but that’s somewhat to be expected, given how lowly I prioritize my own well being. (Stop that, Jill.) But other than that, things weren’t too shabby.

Numbers-wise, I hit my reading goal, and with a couple extra books besides; I even hit the stipulation that half of them be nonfiction! I did write up two new first drafts (Copper and Box of Bones) but only managed to edit one first draft into a second (Sacrifice); but I knew from about October onward that this would be the case, so I’m trying not to beat myself up about it too much. (Because man have I got excuses for the tail end of this year.) Sadly, I totally faceflopped on my goal to write twelve short stories by writing a grand total of three. *sad trombone* But in a shocking turn of events on the last day of the year, I actually hit the rejections goal! *soccer stadium cheer* I even managed one extra rejection (yay?) for a total of forty-nine.

Honestly, for my writing stuff, I think I’ve about maxed out my productivity in my current stage of life. So I’m pretty much just setting a repeat on last year’s reading, writing, and publishing goals, with just a few minor adjustments.

Once more, I’d like to read twenty-four books, with half of them being nonfiction. This year, I’m planning on leaning a little more heavily toward the editing side of things since I have about a million first drafts lurking around my hard drive; I hope to edit three ugly early drafts (probably Blood and Ebony, Quicksilver Queen, and A Cinder’s Tale, but I’m flexible) and to write one first draft of something new over the course of the three NaNo sessions. I’m also reining back on the short story drafting, just letting those evolve on an as-needed basis without a specific goal in mind. And I’m sticking with my forty-eight rejections for the year goal because, augh it hurts, but it seems to be working for me.

So that’s it! I’ve broken each of these goals down into quarterly, monthly, and daily goals to help keep me ticking along a little more smoothly (and maybe eliminate the need for New Year’s Eve miracles, haha). So I have a plan. Let’s see how badly I wreck it!

How about you guys? Any big writing resolutions? Or little ones? Let me know- I’d love to chat! Happy New Year and happy writing!

Making SMART Goals

1002400711 Fort Fourth_22I love me a shiny New Year. And I love making a new set of goals. But here I sit, New Year’s Eve, and I haven’t quite come up with my goals yet. This is a bit of a role reversal for me, since me husband already has all his goals stated and written down, with a plan for how to chase them down.

Me? I’m still wandering around in the weeds. I usually make one overarching goal each for several aspects of my life, and then break them down into monthly or weekly goals, so I’ll probably do something like that.

In my endless quest to consume the entire internet (spoiler alert: it’s not going well, they keep making new stuff), I came across an article recently about making SMART goals. Maybe you’ve heard of this already, but just in case you haven’t, here’s the breakdown:

Specific Goals shouldn’t be a fuzzy, be-a-better-person sort of aspiration. Give yourself a clear direction with a well-defined endgame. Making the goal to “get good” at the tuba isn’t going to cut it. Be specific.

Measurable Part of that specificity is in the numbers. Dates. Pounds. Hours per week. Dollars. Make your goals such that you know when you have hit them, and then celebrate those victories.

Attainable I am the queen of crazy pie-in-the-sky goals, so this one is one I need to especially keep in mind. Yes, of course I would love to be empress of the universe by 2020, but let’s be real, it’s going to take me way longer than that to assemble the necessary imperial fleet.

Relevant Sure, I could make a goal to run a mile a week, but honestly? That’s just not something that I care about and not a thing that fits into my idea of who I want to be. A goal like that would flop because it isn’t relevant to where I want to take myself.

Time Bound This is true in every aspect of my life. No deadline, no achievement. If I don’t have a do-or-die date, it ain’t happening.

I already knew most of this stuff, but it’s nice to have a cute little acronym. Makes it more memorable.

Another thing that makes goals more memorable? Writing them down. I asked my husband what his goals were for last year and he had no idea. He hadn’t written them down. So probably some time around January 20th or so, they were gone, with no hope of being completed.

I got my hot little hands on an advance copy of a book called The Art of Finishing by Annah Searle.  (You’ll recall that she was kind enough to write a guest post for me on this very topic back in October. You should go check out her blog, The Art of Pure Living.) I’ve just started reading through it in the ongoing struggle to force myself to be a better person and I’m planning on integrating the tips in the book into my goal making this year, particularly in the workbook.

Whatever I end up going with for my goals- which I’ll definitely have ready to share next week, along with how I did on last year’s goals- I’ll keep you lovely folks posted on all my pratfalls and faceplants.

See you next year! 😀

The Great Annual Resolutions Post

calvinresolutionHowdy, folks! Hey, look, we all survived another year! Wowza!

I made a few resolution shifts midyear last year. I switched over from the paper calendar system I had been using to a phone app called Habitica that is delightfully nerdy and keeps me on my toes. It taps into my love of check boxes, but then also has a built in reward system, so it works very well for me, and I think I’ll cling to it forever.

Overall, I had a good year, without too many dropped balls on my goals. My exercise goals got derailed every now and then by rugby injuries, and I jumped ship on a few writing projects, switching over to things that were more interesting at the time (because squirrel brain: the struggle is real). And as mentioned a few weeks ago, I did manage to scratch and claw my way to receiving Writer of the Year from the Alaska Writers Guild. But the goal I know you’re all just dying to know about: the rejections goal.

As you may recall from this post last year, I had a goal to receive at least forty-eight rejections. I counted short story submissions, queries, competitions- anything that pitted my writing against a slush pile. The final count is in aaaand… I failed! *sad trombone* As of December 31, I only tallied forty-four rejections.

I’m not being too hard on myself, because I still managed to achieve the two main objectives of the rejection goal: I got better at taking rejections as impersonal matters of preference, and I pushed myself to submit waaaay more than I usually do. As a result, I also had way more acceptances than I normally do! And as an added benefit that I hadn’t even anticipated, I had a super productive year for short stories too, because I had to make sure that I had fresh material to shop around as my old store of shorts got published. Overall, it was a very good year for my writing!

So I think I’m gonna stick with what works. I’ll keep with a forty-eight rejections goal for this year as well, since I felt really pushed and still didn’t quite manage to make the goal. I think I can hit it for reals this time! For novels, since I didn’t stick with the titles I had planned to work on, but still managed to get good work done with other projects, this year I think I’ll just drop the specifics altogether and just have a goal of two new first drafts, and a round of edits each for two first drafts from last year. I’ll work on whatever sounds most fun in the moment! I also plan to average one new short per month, although I don’t plan on worrying too much about how marketable they all are. And for daily goals, I plan a baseline of 500 words per day, and ten minutes of backshop, with Sundays off to rest my weary brain meats. I have goals for my spiritual, mental, and physical health as well, but that’s it for my writing goals.

Whew! All the things! I should have plenty to keep myself busy over the next year. I would love, love, love to hit that rejections goal, and maybe even outstrip this year’s number of acceptances. Heck, if we’re getting really pie-in-the-sky, I’d like to pick up an agent as well, haha, but that one’s a little less in my control. The only thing I can do is keep researching, stay consistent, and continue to hone my craft as much as I can. So that’s what I’ll do!

How about you fine folks? Any exciting new goals for this year? Let’s chat about them in the comments section! I’d love to know your plans!

Until next week, happy writing, and happy New Year as well!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Save Your Character From A Drowning Story

Hey, gang! I’m down south visiting family in Anchorage Alaska, and getting very little writing done while I instead plan vacations, bake all the things, and hold the tiniest of humans far more than is necessary.  Fortunately, I’ve got the word count buffer to sustain this kind of lifestyle for another few days during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Any of you fellow wrimos- how go the literary hijinks?

This is our last reblog of the month, and then I have to start being thoughtful again. This one comes from Nicole Blades via Writers Digest, and stuck out to me probably because my story kind of stinks this month, haha. It’s nice to know that if the ship sinks, I might at least be able to launch a lifeboat and get my MC to dry land again.

5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

NBladeby Nicole Blades

As writers, we’ve all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we’re working on just isn’t. We’ve tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we’ve come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won’t let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book is going to released into the wilds come October 31, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

Ready to read some more? Head on over to Writers Digest for the full article. And until next week, happy writing!

Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!