December 11, 2011

12 Blogs of Christmas: Yummy Cookies!

Ah, December. What better month to stuff yourself to the brim with baked goods? Don't worry. You'll resolve to never eat another cookie again for the new year. Of course, by January 7th, you'll break that resolution, but this isn't January. Who cares about January? This is December. Cookies are in front of you now. And they smell delicious.

Here's the funny part of my annual Christmas Cookie Extravaganza. The Jewish Christmas cookie: Poppy Seed Hamantaschen. Though it's not a Chanukah cookie, my family always bakes it around this holiday. I mean, any excuse for a cookie, right? My family celebrates both Chanukah and Christmas, so we get twice the cookies. (Good deal from my perspective. I love cookies.)

My favorite holiday cookie is a toss-up between the Poppy Seed Hamantaschen and old-fashioned peanut butter cookies. Hamantaschen are also made with strawberry, raspberry, and apricot filling.
As part of the 12 Blogs of Christmas, and in the spirit of loving cookies, I've collected holiday favorites from a snazzy group of people to share with you! Ask a bunch of writers and bloggers what their favorite cookies are, and you get some great stories (and recipes!) to go with your milk.

NK: Kelly, why don't you start us off. What's your favorite holiday cookie to bake?

KSG: Let me just put this out there: I am not a cook.  However, I do like cookies, and I like to have fun.  When my kids were little we made Play Dough Cookies for every holiday, varying the colors based on the holiday.  For Christmas, it was this simple:
  • Premade sugar cookie dough (Of course, supermoms can make their own)
  • Red food coloring
  • Green food coloring
Mix half the dough with red coloring and half the dough with green. Then grab a small ball from each and mix them together, swirl them, form a border with one, whatever you would do with Play Doh!  Then put them on a cookie sheet and bake per the directions. As they bake, the colors bleed together and become brighter.  You can add frosting or colored sugar afterwards, but every cookie is unique and it's fun to play with your food.

photo by rorobeans
NK: I love this idea. What a great way to get the whole family involved in baking! What's your take on the cookies, Raine?

RT: My favorite holiday cookie is a magic cookie bar.  My mom made these every year only at Christmas, and they're utterly divine!  Here is a link to the recipe: Magic Cookie Bars.

NK: Sounds yummy. Hey, D.C. how do you feel about Christmas cookies?

DCM: Holy shit, I love cookies. The only thing better than eating cookies is eating cookies in a gaudy Christmas sweater that covers my pooching stomach. I love pretty much all cookies but my favourite has to be the chocolate macaroon. Just thinking about all of that chocolatey chewy goodness makes me want to grab the mixing bowl and go to town.

I don’t know what goes into your macaroons but mine involve sweetened coconut (2.5 cups), bitter sweet chocolate (4 ounces), super high quality cocoa powder (1/4 cup), three egg whites, sugar (3/4 cups), salt (1/4 tsp), and vanilla extract (one tsp). Okay, I know what you’re thinking; where is the condensed milk? There is none in this easy recipe. Just melt the chocolate, mix the other ingredients. Mix melted chocolate into other ingredients and spoon onto cookie sheets. Let the little buggers sit in the fridge for a little while then bake in an oven at 325 F for ten minutes. Let cool and voila! Your dinner is prepared. Double the recipe if you have guests and aren’t so much into the sharing.

NK: Fabulous. I'm picturing the sweater right now. It looks like this: Christmas Sweater. Hey, Ciara, is there an Australian Christmas cookie?

CB: The closest I can get is 'Tonie's Truffles' - so called because I stole them from my aunt, Tonie. I love these, they are incredibly moreish - which is why I only make them at Christmas. I make them and take them somewhere knowing that I will probably eat most of them *shrug* that's OK right? After all, I went to the effort of making them. They are a strictly once a year food for me because they are really unhealthy (check the ingredients if you don't believe me). They're not really a Christmas food, although they do kind of look like snowballs. Um, yeah, it doesn't snow here in Australia. OK, well, if it snows wherever you are, you can pretend they're snowballs. I'll coat mine in chocolate sprinkles and pretend they're... no, nevermind.

*Tonie's Truffles*
1 packet of Nice biscuits
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
1 cup of coconut (plus extra for rolling truffles in)
1 tablespoon of cocoa
Chocolate sprinkles (optional - for rolling truffles in)

Crush biscuits (in food processor or by hand) and mix in a large bowl with the can of milk, the cup of coconut, and the tablespoon of cocoa. Mix until all dry ingredients are moistened.

Roll the mixture into bite-sized balls, wetting hands in warm water every 3 – 4 truffles to prevent mix sticking. Coat each truffle with coconut or chocolate sprinkles. Keep in fridge to set.  

Visit Ciara's 12 Blogs of Christmas: Decorations That Have Kangaroos in Their Top Paddocks here!

NK: Who doesn't love truffles? I'm bringing this recipe to the States! Amberr, what's your secret to holiday cookies?

No-Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter
AM: One of my favorite holiday cookies are my granny's famous no-baked cookies. They're so easy to make that even a child--or a terrible baker like myself--can make them without screwing up. My grandmother passed away the other year and took her exact recipe with her, but I've found a few that have come close since then. The other day, I came across this delicious recipe and decided to experiment in advance. Jackpot! The end result is a mouthwatering, delectable cookie that is pure poetry for the taste buds. I can't wait to make them again for our traditional dinner next week.

Visit Amberr's 12 Blogs of Christmas: Tasty Traditions here!
NK: I'm a huge fan of no-bake desserts! Glad you found a recipe that was almost as good as your grandmother's. As the only guy in this mix, Justin, I'm dying to know: do you bake for Christmas?

JB: I'm actually fairly competent in the kitchen. My father was the chef of the family and he taught everyone how to make a complete holiday meal. My mother made really great sugar cookies with decorative icing, but I somehow didn't get that cookie gene. I'm a terrible baker. So, my favorite Christmas Cookies are the store bought kind! Or any gift of homemade cookies from other friends and family -- love them (please send to the San Juan Islands LOL)!

Zippy and the new puppy-girl, Kipling, also cherish the tin the cookies come in, but I had to give them a lesson on sharing:

That gift is for the both of you!
Come on Zippy, please share ;-)

Zippy is very chagrined... he walked away and Kipling started to open the package!

NK: Pets deserve cookies, too! Make sure they save you one. Erica, you must have a story to go with your cookies.

ELD: Once upon a Christmas baking... My mother and I dusted out my aunt's cookie recipes to bake one of her holiday favorites. Not being big on reading the directions, we messed up a few of the ingredients and what we ended up with was way better than the cookies we set out to make. These are moist, delicious, dunkable Christmas cookies! (And they might even be healthy...unless you use the mincemeat with Rum in it.)
Too tasty to wait!

*Mincemeat Mistake Cookies*
(sift together and set aside)
3 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

(cream together)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
2 eggs

Add 28oz jar of mincemeat (or reconstituted dry mincemeat) to sugar mixture then mix in dry ingredients.
Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees F for about 8-10 minutes.
This recipe makes several dozen delicious cookies!

Visit Erica's 12 Blogs of Christmas: Somewhere in My Memory here!

NK: That's the best way to make a new recipe. Love the story. Melody, I hear you have a unique cookie for us.

MAJKYou have to know this – I hate fruit cake – I do with a passion.  I have all my life.  I hate fruit cake on a special level.  The word would just make my taste buds cringe.  This is important because my father in law messes with this constant in my life every Christmas by making the most ridiculously delicious Fruitcake cookies.  I don’t know the recipe.  I don’t care.  These cookies he makes are the most delicious, amazing, perfect food ever! Put me on a planet with nothing but these to eat and I will not complain … until they are gone.

I wait for the “Kma & Kpa Christmas visit” – as my son calls it.  This is the visit when they come over and bring presents and a big platter filled with all of the different kinds of cookies they have made.  This is where I discovered my father-in-laws fruitcake cookies.  I would eat them all if my manner didn’t stop me.  Yummy!! Really, they are on a level of “heaven in your mouth” kind of tasty. I’ve lobbied my husband for a name change because I still hate fruitcake.  I’m not getting much traction. I don’t care though as long as my wonderful father in law keeps making me those cookies.

Visit Melody's 12 Blogs of Christmas: Favorite Christmas Toys here!
Courtesy of StockPodium

NK: Have to say, I'm not a fruitcake fan either, but those cookies sound great. Is there a cookie that sums it all up for you, Maureen?

MH: To me, Linzer Cookies mean Christmas. I always add raspberry jam to the middle and am liberal with the powdered sugar. Melt-in-your-mouth pecan-tasty goodness. (Click on the cookie link for a delicious recipe.)

Visit Maureen's 12 Articles of Clothing in the Christmas Clauset here!

NKThose look amazing. Karen, did I hear you have a Double-Peanut Butter Cookie recipe?

KDLEver since I could remember Reese's Double Peanut Butter Cookies have been my favorite. I used to fight with my mom because she would put a plate of cookies out for Santa and she'd put at least one of every kind we made on it. And boy did it piss me off when I would come down the next morning to see only a bite taken out of the peanut butter one. What a waste. Now that I'm the mommy I'm in charge of putting that plate of cookies out and you better believe that there are no peanut butter cookies on it. Santa can stick to the good ole chocolate chip cookies when visiting my house. 

*Double Peanut Butter Cookies Recipe* (from the Hershey's website):
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, softened
    Take two!
    3/4 cup sugar
    1/3 cup REESE'S Creamy Peanut Butter
    1 egg
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 cup REESE'S Peanut Butter Chips

    Heat oven to 350°F.

    Beat butter, sugar and peanut butter in large bowl until creamy. Add egg and vanilla; beat well. Stir together flour, baking soda and salt; gradually add to butter mixture, beating until well blended. Stir in peanut butter chips; drop by scant 1/4 cupfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet, 6 cookies per sheet.

    Bake 12 to 16 minutes or until lightly browned around edges. Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie sheet to wire rack. Cool completely. About 1-1/2 dozen cookies.

NK: Oh, my. I'm definitely making these!! Wait, we haven't seen a sugar cookie recipe yet. Marie, please tell me you have one.

MPChristmas wouldn’t be Christmas without sugar cookies, and this is, by far, one of the best sugar cookie recipes ever invented.  Of course, I might be a little biased, because it’s a traditional family recipe, but I seriously have yet to find a recipe that can replace this one.  I dare you to make it one of your traditional cookie recipes.  You won’t be disappointed!

Nibble on Frosty.
*Mom’s Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies*
1 cup margarine
1 ½ cups sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream together margarine, eggs, sour cream and sugar.  Mix in dry ingredients and refrigerate until chilled.  Roll small amounts of chilled dough out in flour.  Cut with floured cookie cutters.

Bake 10-12 minutes @ 400 degrees.  Allow to cool completely, then frost and decorate. Store in an airtight container to retain softness.

Thanks for stopping by the 12 Blogs of Christmas: Yummy Cookies Edition. Remember to click the other 12 Blogs of Christmas links to read all about our holiday favorites and share your own!

What are your favorite holiday cookies? Do you have the best recipe ever? An unbeatable baking disaster story? Share it in the comments! 

A special thanks to all the participants of the 12 Blogs of Christmas: Kelly Stone-Gamble, Raine Thomas, D.C. McMillen, Ciara Ballintyne, Amberr Meadows, Justin Bogdanovitch, Erica Lucke Dean, Melody-Ann Kaufmann, Maureen Hovermale, Karen DeLabar, and Marie Patchen!

November 30, 2011

Undead at Dark

First let me say, YIPPEE! I survived my first NYU editing class!

My term project was to purchase a "book" based on a proposal that one of my classmates wrote. I chose a parody of Dead Until Dark: A Sookie Stackhouse Novel, by Charlaine Harris, which was turned into HBO's True Blood. After all, who could turn down this synopsis?

"Meet Stoogie Stackhouse. His life is as normal as it can be when you’re a telepathic waiter. Yeah, he already knows you want fries with that burger, even though you just ordered a salad. But Stoogie’s small-town life in Shriekport, Louisiana is enlivened when Vampire Jill comes to town. Even more intriguing to Stoogie are the young men found murdered in the wake of Jill’s arrival.

Fangs clash when it appears Jill is the only one around with a hankering for TruBlood. Can Stoogie solve the murders with his telepathic waiter skills and stake off Jill’s mostly-dead Southern charm? The drama swells like blood from a paper cut when Stoogie suspects he may be the next target.

Join Stoogie for this rollicking chomp through Shriekport and meet dead(ly) vamps, she-beasts, and minimum-wage workers." (Original synopsis by Kristine Swartz, revised by NK.)

Throughout the term, I had to create different parts of the project, culminating in a final presentation - a pitch at an editorial board meeting. My professor (an Executive Editor at St. Martin's press) and his assistant were grading our pitches as we sat in the conference room of the Flatiron Building, which by the way is one of the coolest buildings in NYC. (See? It's the triangle shaped one on the left.)

Flatiron at Night
Here's the pitch:

"Blood-drained bodies are piling up faster than greasy plates, and Stoogie Stackhouse, telepathic waiter, must solve the slayings before the townsfolk serve his vampire girlfriend a wooden stake."

(I'd never written a pitch before, and I went through several versions, many of which sucked worse than a hungry vamp at a half-empty blood bank. A big thanks to Kelly Stone Gamble for her help with this!)

I titled the parody, Undead at Dark. As part of my project, I wrote a chapter excerpt to include (mostly for laughs). So, here it is:

I knew she was a vampire the second she walked into the bar.

She wasn’t sparkly, but she did give off a little glow. Probably the fluorescents bouncing off her bloodless skin. Besides the fact that she was pale and perfect, her fangs showed when she smiled. Just a little. Not enough that anyone who wasn’t looking would notice. But I’m always looking. After all, she was a hottie, and I’d been dying to meet a vampire.

People say I’m crazy.

I’m not crazy. I’m telepathic, which is different than crazy. Mostly. I’m also a waiter at Samantha Merlotte’s Bar. Which is like, a total waste of my talent, right? I mean — if vampires can come out and blame a virus for thousands of years of murder, you’d think a little telepathic ability shouldn’t be so bad.

But it is.

Especially in small-town Shriekport, Louisiana. Which is also why this vamp-chick walking into the bar was so exciting. Nothing ever happens in Shriekport.

Unless you count the time I “overheard” the pastor of the church think about the hooker he had buried in his backyard.

I never said being telepathic was a gift.

The vampire sat down in my booth. My muscles flexed, almost involuntarily, at the sight of her. I checked my sandy blonde hair in a high ball glass, winked at my reflection, and sauntered over. Yeah. I saunter. What of it? I know I’m a stud. Girls think it all the time. Even if they don’t say it I know. I have ways, remember?

You’ve thought it too. Don’t fib.

I felt a grin creep over my lips right before I said, “Welcome to Merlotte’s. What can I get ya, honey?”

The vampire blinked at me, asked in a tone just above a whisper, “Do you have any TruBlood?”

I knew Sam had ordered some last month, but since no vamps had ever come into the bar, it expired a few days ago. She’d poured it down the drain. “Sorry, we’re fresh out.” I wondered if saying fresh was a bad idea. Was she eyeing my neck?

She licked her fang — the left one — and said, “I’ll have a Cabernet, I guess.” Her voice was like wine on the tongue. Or maybe that was a little drop of her blood?

I put her order in. Sam caught me staring over at the vampire’s booth. I think she figured it out, too. Sam’s pretty perceptive. Plus she has this incredible sense of smell. Do vampires give off a scent?

Sam poured the Cabernet for my vampire, and one for herself. She usually only did that when she was interested in someone and trying to hide it. I looked back at my vampire, shifting in the booth, then turned to Sam. “I saw her first,” I said, and grabbed the wine glass.

Placing it directly on the table in front of the vampire, I said, “I’m Stoogie Stackhouse. I get off at eleven.”

The vampire smiled at me, her pointed teeth growing. “Jill,” she said, nodding in my direction.

Score. This was definitely going to be a good night.

-Overall, I had fun in the class and a great time working on the final project. Can't wait to see what next term holds!

November 15, 2011

It's the End of the World

Well. It's the end of a world. Emily's world. Which is to say, I've completed a first draft of my novel. I'm doing a little dance over here that you can't see, but I promise it's entertaining.

I need to write that again. A novel. An entire book fell out of my brain. (Not literally of course because that would be gross and painful.)

There's something unbelievable and intoxicating about being a writer. Something that both rips my soul out of time and place, and tethers me to reality in the same moment. It allows me to dream in peace. Something that no other part of my life has yet to offer.

Ask me two years ago where I thought I'd be right now I would have said: Working on my PhD in Biological Anthropology. (I've not abandoned this dream, I've simply shelved it for further consideration.) Five years ago, I probably would have said: Working for a small company in marketing and design. A decade before today, the answer likely would have been: Married, with a little house in upstate New York, hoping to own my own graphic design company.

I've worked in graphic design (and owned my own company). I've worked for a company in marketing. I've lived in upstate New York. I even interviewed at some PhD programs. But something felt off, missing, wrong.

The last five or so years, life has thrown me a few curve balls. Actually, life threw the whole damn bat at my head. And I did something I hadn't done in years. I picked up a pen and wrote about it.

I've always been an idealist. A dreamer. But somewhere along the line, more than ten years ago, I listened to those around me when they said: A degree in English isn't practical. You need a more rational plan.

I should have ignored them all.

I've been a writer since I could hold a pencil, and the decade or so that I spent writing less and less because "practical" got in the way nearly decapitated my spirit.

I am a writer. I write.

When life threw that aluminum bat in my direction, I remembered this fact. Over the past few years, I've filled three journals, several notebooks, and countless digital files with stories, frustrations, hopes. I had a lot to catch up on.

And I'll never stop again. Which is why I can say that this month I completed the first draft of the novel I've spent the last eleven months writing in my MFA program. It may be the end of Emily's world, but for me, it's just the beginning. While I don't consider this project finished, it is an accomplishment I plan to celebrate. With drinks. Whiskey — in honor of Emily's favorite drink. Who's joining me?

Here's a little whiskey music from the Dropkick Murphys:

And who could have a shot without The Doors?

Throwing in another classic:

October 4, 2011

Mimes and MetroCards

New York University. It's just a school, right? So why is it that when I stepped off the subway yesterday in the fading October light, and looked up at those purple and white banners, a sense of awe and excitement rushed through me?

I have to back up for a moment here. For those of you who know me, your heads just did a synchronized exorcist-spin. I loathe the NYC subway system. I prefer my shoes hitting the hot-dog-scented pavement. Or a cab. Plus, I tend to have this fear that I'll board the wrong subway and end up lost. (Don't laugh, I've done it. Actually, go ahead and laugh because I’ve done it.) But I knew when I registered for a course at NYU that it would be too far to walk on cold Autumn nights, and cabs could become costly. So, along with my LIRR ticket, I bought a MetroCard.

It's a little thing really. Fits in a credit card slot. Has a digital strip you swipe for rides. But I was more afraid of losing this little yellow and blue card than I would be my license. Why? It's not about the twenty bucks. It's standing in line, in the sweltering heat below the city streets, waiting to buy a new one.

Museum of Natural History
Growing up, I'd spent lots of time in the city. Both my parents worked in SoHo, and my brother and I travelled with them sometimes. We went everywhere: the Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building, South Street Seaport... I loved the city. Still do. These were the days of token-turnstiles. But that all changed when the world went digital. Ready to laugh again?

A few years ago, I went to a concert with some friends. Standing in line, chatting about the band, I hadn’t realized that the token machines were gone. I approached a touch-screen, and blinked. What in the hell? I was prepared for a token machine. I had no idea how to buy a ticket. My friends had already passed through the turnstile. I clicked a few buttons, and it brought me back to the home screen.

Well, this was absolutely unacceptable for the skirt-and-sneaker-clad woman behind me. She let out a sigh that could have been mistaken for the words, F#$%ing Moron, and shoved me aside. I watched over her shoulder as she flew through memorized choices, bought her ticket, and nearly elbowed me in the face on her way out. Not all New Yorkers are like this, but they do exist. The next lady in line walked me through the simple steps. I bought my MetroCard-of-Shame, and headed for the platform.

It’s not that I think a repeat of this event would happen. The system really isn’t that complicated. It was more the idea that something could go wrong. That maybe they’d changed the machines again. That I’d actually catch an elbow to the face this time. Or that there wouldn’t be a machine at all and I’d have to know some top-secret code or pantomime to make that metal cage turn.

Speaking of mimes, my first assignment for class (we’re back to NYU now) is to pretend I'm an Associate Editor and create two book proposals for faux books that I would pitch to my company. All I could think was: Well, we could do a book about street performers. Mimes. From their perspective. My next thought? I wasn’t sure if they’d have anything to say on the subject. I know, I know. But a mime joke is a terrible thing to waste. And it’s really what popped into my mime... er, mind. I prayed that the instructor wouldn’t call on me, because after the mimes invaded my brain, I couldn’t actually think of anything else to say. Perhaps it was contagious?

After class, I roamed the hallways for a few minutes. I’d always wanted to attend NYU. It was my dream school. I’d passed the campus a hundred times. Seen it in movies, on TV. (I even pondered making a pilgrimage to Felicity’s Dean & DeLuca.) I’d wanted to attend NYU for my undergrad work, though after careful consideration, the tuition cost was just not in my budget. I promised myself that one day, somehow, I’d figure it out.

Then, while researching programs in publishing and editing, I happened upon NYU’s website. The purple and white snagged me again. That’s why, when I walked up into the cool New York air and those banners were the first thing I saw, I was exhilarated. I finally felt like I’d kept my promise.

What promises have you made to yourself? Have you kept them?

For a little history on NYU's Silver Center, check out this article from the Daily News. NYU offers an MS in Publishing, and Professional Certificates in Publishing, Editing and Digital Publishing. (Click the links for more info.)

September 23, 2011

Paper Birds

What's in your future?
Origami. No doubt you’ve heard of it. You’ve probably even made it. Ever try out one of those fortune tellers in high school? Don’t fib. You know you wanted to see if Jordan Catalano had a crush on you too. Or if you were going to be a pro-football star. How’d that work out for you, anyway?

So, what the heck is origami? It’s the traditional art of paper folding. The word is a blend of oru meaning “to fold” in Japanese, and kami meaning “paper.” Check out Between the Folds from PBS for more details on the history of this unique art.

Since the protagonist of my novel teaches origami, I decided to brush up on the techniques. It’s something I’ve done since grade school, when I first attended an art workshop. By the end of the day, I’d made a little hopping frog. At home, I made four more and raced them across the coffee table. You can find instructions on how to make your own hopping frog at Origami Club.

Won Park's Dollar Origami
I have to thank my SNHU MFA mentor, Merle Drown, for sending an origami guru's name my way. For some advanced (and amazingly cool!) origami made with dollar bills, check out Won Park's gallery on deviantArt. Seriously. Go there. There's a Millennium Falcon, Tie Fighters, and X-Wings made out of dollar bills. His book, Dollar Origami, is due out in November.

From the hopping frog on, I was hooked. Who wouldn't be? I begged my mom to buy me a book of designs and a package of patterned paper squares. I was desperate to learn the crane. It was considered good luck. Plus, it was pretty. And when you’re an eight-year-old girl, pretty things are the key to happiness. Just ask one.

Today, I can make this design hardly looking at the paper. The crane, as well as other paper birds, play an interesting part in my work-in-progress, revealing more than just layers of paper.

Here’s an excerpt:

At eight o’clock, Mac pooled the group together to walk back to the dorm wing.

“This is for you,” Cupcake said, passing the swan across the table. “Because you see into things.”

“Thank you,” I said, accepting the tiny bird. I didn’t know what she meant. “Goodnight, Mac.”

“See you Thursday.”

As I collected my markers and books, I could hear rain spatter against the high windows. The room didn’t echo, rather it absorbed the sound. Mayflower absorbed everything. In here I had no fear, no anger. I sat cross-legged on the edge of the round table and pulled on the wings of Cupcake’s swan.

She’d drawn an eye and some feathers. Not feathers. Arrows? I unfolded the swan back to a square. Inside, in purple marker, were scrawled the words: Just ask.

August 18, 2011

Give Me Your Worst...

...Fiction, that is.

Thick rain is beating against my windows and thunder is rattling anything not tied down, as it crashes overhead, while cars whiz past, splashing grey loops on my lawn, like a bowl of spit-soggy Cheerios, half chewed by a two-year-old.

From "Peanuts" by Charles Shultz

San Jose State University sponsors an annual competition for the worst opening literary lines, based upon the infamous opening line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, Paul Clifford. The contest asks writers to intentionally create the worst/cheesiest/most grotesque opening lines for literature and submit them for a chance at publication, and a pittance. Literally. The prize is a pittance.

While most people are familiar with the beginning of this line, you might not be familiar with the full text: "It was a dark and stormy night;  the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness," (Bulwer-Lytton). Geez. What a mouthful!

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has spawned some truly hysterical creations. The 2011 Winners in all categories were a riot to read. The categories range from Vile Puns to Historical Fiction to Crime; there's even a dishonorable mentions section!

One of my favorites (though there were many to choose from) was the Romance winner, Ali Kawashima, who submitted: "As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand—who would take her away from all this—and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had."

For some additional humor, check out The Huffington Post article, which includes pictorial representations of some of the winners!

In the spirit of deplorable literature, what is the worst opening line you can come up with?

Be sure to check out the contest winners by clicking on the links above or visiting the main site hereBulwer-Lytton Contest.

July 14, 2011

When Your Muse Just Isn’t That Into You

Your Muse wakes you up at 2:00am promising hours of ecstasy but delivers only a mildly satisfying twenty minutes. She interrupts you while you’re driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic telling you that you’d better find a pen and something to write on in five seconds, or the inspiration will self-destruct. You have no pen.

In the middle of your office presentation, she whispers coy words in your ear, causing you to stumble in front of the V.P. Again. And now, she forces you to pull over on the side of the interstate because there’s a blind woman selling steak-fried-Cheetos in the middle of the desert, and your Muse says you need to know why. Really. Steak-fried-Cheetos-woman is important to your story. Muse swears.

She comes into your life at random, tosses one chocolate chip at you when you’re dying for the whole cookie, and leaves without saying goodbye. Bitch.

What can you do if your Muse just isn’t that into you?

You could try to woo her back:

  • Buy her a box of chocolates (you can eat one)
  • Pick up a nice bottle of wine (she won’t mind if you have a glass)
  • Perhaps some jazz music for ambiance (the kind without words to avoid distraction)

If your Muse is still more interested in flying off to Paris for the weekend, you might just have to forge ahead without her. You have deadlines to meet, after all.

Maybe you’re not the type that can simply sit down in front of the screen and force yourself to write. In that case, you might need to duct tape yourself to a chair. Why didn’t you think of duct-taping your Muse to the chair before she boarded the plane?

Or, if duct tape isn’t your thing, you could go around touching things. (Get your mind right out of that gutter!) You’re a sensory being, and touch is one of your greatest strengths. The feel of a salt-beaten, rocking chair - splinters eroded down to slick, grey grooves - beneath your fingertips just might be the inspiration you need.

What if you’re describing the environment? As you’re walking about, run your hand over the tree bark, pick up a fallen leaf, put your toes in the river, close your eyes and sit in the tall grass. Feel the speed of the water colliding with the soles of your feet, the vein of the leaf as it bends from stem to tip, the serrated edge of every blade of grass. Charge your writing with texture and watch as it comes alive. (Not literally though, because that would be a whole different type of story. Frankenstein forests are not good.)

Perhaps your character is a baker. You probably stuck your fingers into a bowl of cake-mix as a child (before you washed your hands, no doubt) to grab a pinky full of that sweet, buttery batter. Does your grown-up character still do this with every batch of cupcakes? If so, go stick your pinky in batter and see what it feels like slipping over your hand, the sensation of tasting the warm vanilla, pressed between your tongue and the groove of your fingerprint.

And when your Muse returns, give her a cupcake and send her down the river.

What do you do when your Muse goes missing?

July 2, 2011

The Scent of Knowledge

"The knowledge gained from a computer... has no texture, no context. It's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible... it should be... well, smelly." - Joss Whedon (from BTVS)

The summer before I began kindergarten, my mother enrolled me in a reading program at our local library. For my first choice, I selected an old, hardcover book. I remember the feel of the worn, coated canvas, stringy at the binding; the musty smell of paper; the raised words. The book was Clyde Monster, a tale of a young monster afraid of people hiding under his bed at night. Since I knew that I would never be crazy enough to hide beneath a monster’s bed, I logically concluded that one would never hide beneath mine. It was at that moment I fell in love with fiction.

I pick up books from my childhood, from the library, or even second-hand bookstores. I feel the worn pages and imagine the lives of people who held those books before me. I can inhale the scent of a book, whether it's yellowed, wine-stained, or brand new, the scent triggers memory. Where was I when I last smelled that particular scent - a coffee shop? A park? The corner of my attic? Perhaps my grandmother's apartment, when I was a child. Not likely, since her apartment always smelled like margarine tubs, canned cat food, and boiled meat. But you get the idea.

The memories arise, come crawling over my skin like some forgotten rush of life, and send me spiraling back to the moment I first felt the cottony pages of McBain's 87th Precinct Novels, or the cool gloss of a just-released book jacket. While I don't expect computers to be scratch-n-sniff any time soon, I know that the experiences I remember most clearly are the ones littered with scents. I agree with Joss Whedon. Knowledge should be smelly.