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Friday, December 30, 2011

Voice Lessons with Jennifer Willis

Many thanks to Jennifer Willis for this wonderful guest post about the individuality of a writer's voice and its ever-evolving nature!

One of the nice things about writing is the more you do it, generally the better you get at it.

When I wrote my first novel -- "rhythm" -- ten years ago, I was scared out of my wits. Forget about simply trying to get through a first draft and come up with a cohesive story; I was worried about my prose being clever and literary enough. I fretted over "show vs. tell" and how much exposition to include at what points in the book. Mostly, though I wanted the story to leap off the page with confidence and inspiration. Many readers today still give positive feedback on my first published fiction effort but when I read back over it, all I see is the fear and uncertainty I felt.

I was born to be a writer, as much as anyone else ever has been, but I still wasn't sure that I had a right to write. Why did my book deserve to be read over someone else's? What if I was discovered to be the fraud and poser that I feared I secretly was?

Every writer anguishes over this kind of crap. Not just new writers, but even established and celebrated authors at the height of their craft. I don't want to revel in this angst as some kind of inherent rite of passage -- because it isn't fun and I'd rather spend my time writing or reading or even belly dancing than worrying about whether I'm good enough -- but it is something that seems to plague us all at one time or another.

When I look over my latest novel -- "Valhalla," released in April 2011 -- it's hard for me to imagine that this work came from the same author. My writing style is less literary and more punchy. There's more humor and even a bit of snark. Part of this came about because I'm somewhat less anxious over whether or not I deserve to be a writer. Mostly, though, this evolved simply over the course of writing more -- not just fiction or journalism, but lots of personal email and letters to family and friends. It was when I looked into my personal correspondence and journal entries that I saw my true "writer's personality" emerging. Instead of trying to impress some faceless, nameless reader to whom I had no real connection, I imagined that I was writing my stories for my best friends to read and enjoy.

If you've read Stephen King's insightful "On Writing," you'll recognize this in his advice to write only for your "ideal reader." That's pretty much how I learned to be less rigid and fearful in my own fiction. I found myself including details that I knew would make my sister smile, or slipping in a few asides that would be sure to make my friends laugh.

A writer's voice develops over time. If you look back at your favorite writer's early works, you'll often see the seeds of his/her later personality being planted, but it's often not until much later that the full-bodied voice and tone take command and become one with the story. For me, this means that even though I'm more comfortable with my own distinctive writing voice today, I know that I will continue to grow into myself as time goes on. The only real requirement is that I keep on writing.

Guest Poster Bio: Jennifer Willis is an author and freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Oregonian, Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The Writer and other electronic and print publications, and her novels -- "rhythm" and "Valhalla" -- are currently available both as ebooks and in print. She can be found online at jennifer-willis.com

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Healing Art of Writing

Recently, I read this article bit.ly/t6GnpF about how writing is now being used as a form for rehabilitation therapy for returning soldiers. Art therapy is often the only form of creative-based therapy people think of, but I was pleased to discover that more doctors are encouraging writing as a means of relaxation and rehabilitation. In these cases writing is used to ease the pain of traumatic events, but the healing art of writing can be used in many forms and has been for centuries.
The few examples of the emotions that writing can alleviate are:
Sadness: Jotting down feelings of loneliness and depression eradicate the pain by painting it on the page.
Happiness: Telling a story of elation or joy is not a form of bragging, but rather a means to share your happiness with others.
Anger: Venting about a troublesome situation is typical of humans, and writing it down only increases the cathartic nature.
For people dealing with particularly difficult times, writing is an excellent means of therapy. It is akin to watching a movie or reading a book, except you are the creator of the story. The facets of your newly written idea can either reflect your dilemmas or avoid them all-together. That is the beauty of writing. There is no definitive form. There are no restricting rules. You can transform a blank page into a place that only exists in the deepest recesses of your imagination. Writing is limitless.
Storytelling is a form of expressing emotion through the beautiful tangle of words. It can relieve stress, share delights or provide an outlet to experience escapism at its finest. The root of writing and reading is to share a common bond with the characters’ struggles while taking time to escape your own. And at some point, either in the middle of a sentence or at the end of the book, you’ll find the worries of the real world melt away at the stroke of a pen.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gifts for Writers

Leading up to the holiday season, I have searched the depths of the wb for a decent list of gifts for writers that my family and friends might be able to purchase. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to receive non-writing related gifts, especially kitchen-wear I can test in my culinary foodieventures. A micro-plain would be wonderful. But I digress.
Some writers may enjoy getting stereotypical gifts: a pen here, a journal there. Maybe even a bookmark. If that’s your cup of tea, be my guest. But those trinkets can only sustain my interest for a short time. Generally speaking, I would prefer a more personalized present that recognizes my individuality as well as my passion for writing. I can only assume this applies to most scribes. What could fit the bill? If you’re (or the writer you’re buying for is) like me, here’s a list of superb gifts for writers:
A Kindle / Tablet- Okay, so they’re expensive. I know. But for the reader / writer in your life, this could be an indispensable gift. I would suggest a Kindle for those more interested in reading on-the-go and a Tablet for people who want to write in the car, at the bar, in a box, with a fox, etc.
A Specific Book- Usually authors seek out books in their genre for comparison, study, pleasure, what have you. Listen carefully and find out what the writer in your life is looking to read. Then, buy it.
A Planner- Everyone could use a good planner. More importantly, people who are stretched between writing projects could definitely use a good time management facilitator.
Software for Formatting- Screenwriter, novelist, poet- every wordsmith needs a good editor. Sometimes a single pair of eyes misses errors, so getting a program that will become ones personal editor is a great idea. For example: final draft, or editing programs.  
Cross-Interest Gifts:
Create Your Own Cookbook- Combing delights is always a clever way to tune into your loved ones interest. For a writer that cooks, giving a cookbook that has cards to write on and sleeves for new recipes is a multipurpose gift.
A Notebook – So I dissed journals a bit earlier and now I’m suggesting you purchase one (under a pseudonym). I don’t use the pen-to-paper method as some writers may, the computer is my medium, but I do enjoy jotting down notes along my travels in nature for future use.  And the writer you know may too.
Hopefully these were helpful suggestions and that the writer in your life is ecstatic when peeling off the paper of your well-thought-out present. Until next time, Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Writing Tips: Structure

Before you write, you have a few structural things to consider. How will you present your story: Will it be linear or non-linear? Will there be flashbacks or time-skips into the future? Will the climax come in the thick of the plot or towards the end? Whose point of view will the story be told from? These are just a few questions you should be asking yourself.
To get on track, the best suggestion I can give is: Create an outline. Not only does an outline allow writers to review the plot but it also offers a means of reflection on how the story will flow together. Generally speaking, a well constructed plot requires an exposition (rising action), a climax and a dénouement (falling action). This shell is acceptable as is, but it can be improved by peppering the overall plot with counterpoints of action that both help and hinder the protagonist.
Here’s how I go about outlining:
I always start out simple. Where will the plot begin and where will it end.
After marking off these points, I move on to defining the climax.
Then, Insert the major events of your narrative as they happen in the rising and falling action segments.
Once on paper, or in a word doc, you can see how to move events around so they will suit the story better or leave your outline alone until further drafting. Personally, I like gradual rising and falling actions with the climax closer to the end. This inclination varies by writer, so don’t feel constricted to my structural preference.
Beyond the basic outline, I typically create a few others.  Outlines that detail the different character arcs and romance arcs. Once these are perfected to my liking as separate outlines, I can blend them together and viola! You have before you, a map of your story. Follow each point as you have planned and your tale will not only flow, but have a structural backbone to support several permutations of editing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Writer’s Sketch 5: Owners Away, Pets Will Play

The outside becomes exposed for a brief moment, its sweet, clean air enticing my nose. But as soon as wafting scents of animals and summer grass flood my senses, the door closes behind my owners and the lock clicks shut.  Finally, the house belongs to me. But what to do? Last time they left it was only a short time. And they returned without anything for me! It’s just as well, I suppose. I did tear apart their window blankets. That was fun! Shreds of scarlet silk everywhere. They littered the floor like the crinklies the young owners throw around when the smelly tree is brought inside.
Time for fun! I turn on my paws, scurry up the stairs with my tail perked and skid into the meal room. Casually, I lick my paw and observe the quiet space. Meow? Just checking no one is home. Sometimes the young owners sneak up on me. Grab my tail; hiss at me. It’s awful. I want to avoid that at all costs if I’m to grace the forbidden counter. My ears don’t register any significant noises. Just a dripping faucet in the owner’s litter room. In a single leap I’ve landed on the slippery counter-top.  It reeks of an itchy smell that makes me sneeze.
That’s when I spot it. The strange jar that looks like me. It’s where the snacks are kept. Scrumptious treats of chewy meat, crunchy nibblets filled with pate, and even my favorite, fishy flakes. I nuzzle the top to pry the jar open but it’s no use. Rubbing against it won’t work either. No, the me jar must break to be opened. Gently pressing my forehead against the ceramic container, I inch it closer to the edge before it tumbles over the side. My pads brace my startled body atop the counter. It was so loud! Pieces of the me jar have scattered across the vinyl floor, and so did its contents.
Success! Delicious treats all for me! I devour the snacks as if I won’t ever be fed again. It’s not that I’m hungry; I just know when the owners return they will be mad. And I may not get treats for some time. Maybe this wasn’t a good plan? At this point it doesn’t matter, I’ve achieved my goal. The delectable flavors of meat melt in my mouth as I chomp the nuggets into pieces. A metal jingle rings in my ears. The door. They returned! My claws grasp the hardwood, scraping as I flee down the hallway to the lowest room. A hop, a jump and I'm tucked away where no one will find me.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review of Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins has produced a high quality, well executed series based on speculative-modern gladiatorial games featuring who else, but children. As a child of the Harry Potter phenomena, I grew to expect series’ to instantly capture my attention and draw me into their whimsical worlds. But that was not so.  A handful of disappointing first installments left me jaded as I took on Collins’ story. I was proven wrong as I hungered to read page-after-page and ultimately book-after-book.
Focusing on the titular first book for this review, I found myself most intrigued by her style of writing. I’m a first-person-hater to begin with, but she convinced me that this unreliable and slightly narcissistic style can be written well and furthermore, enjoyable. I cherished the intimate understanding of Katniss Everdeen this point of view provided and it certainly helped to piecing together the sadistic world of Panem. From the reaping to the final play of the games, Collins succeeded in bringing Katniss’ emotions to life.
The flow from one chapter to another was impeccable; her cliffhangers are well placed and create a burning desire to read more. On the other hand, I would have enjoyed the exposition and resolution chapters of the story to be more than summary or an instant drop-off. Accordingly, the pacing of the novel left a sense of incompleteness as some seemingly important moments were all but glazed over. I don’t mind the passage of time cutting to the chase, but not over the chase (I’ll admit this applies more aptly to the sequels, but does show itself in this first book). The overall plot is generally predictable, at least for a seasoned reader, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure it brings to each passing page.
An achievement of note from Hunger Games is displayed in Collins' array of quirky characters. They reflect the bizarre circus The Capitol encourages while also demonstrating the struggles of the surrounding districts. Peeta, the boy with the bread, as she calls him, was one I quickly related to and found positively charming (it helped that he sparked most of the unexpected plot turns and reminds me of my own main character). His way with words was not lost on this writer. There are other characters, Gale and Prim, who one would assume deserved more page time by virtue of their relationship to Katniss, but were as fleeting and underdeveloped as shooting stars. And yet, Rue, a girl who crosses into Katniss’ world for a brief part of the games, drew me close to tears upon her exit.
The games themselves were brilliantly described, not only bringing the arena to life, but allowing the reader to feel the fear and paranoia of all the tributes. Not neglecting a single aspect of horror, Collins does not shy away from grotesque killings or descriptions of injuries. This does benefit the frankly deranged concept, but it also rises the reading age to above her intended target audience. Furthermore, while I understand a lovelorn Katniss caught between two suitors propelled the plot, it drew nearer to a cliché with every question about her feelings she left ignored. I can let it slide given her base of readers, but it was an aggrivating point worth mentioning. The spectacle of the games brings to light the absurdity of this world in an approachable manner that young readers can comprehend. Especially noteworthy is in the final play of the game. At this turning point, Collins’ creates a benchmark for young readers to understand that individual identity should always come out the victor.  
Although a bit brainless, Katniss engages the reader throughout her heart wrenching journey as Collins’ capitalizes on delivering a story that holds nothing back.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Musings on Sequels and Prequels

I would like to clarify at the beginning of this post that I am not against prequels or sequels. A prime example would be the newest Batman trilogy. Batman Begins was more or less a prequel; introducing Bruce and his road to becoming the caped crusader. The Dark Knight is a sequel to the first installment; in my opinion, arguably the best superhero film ever made (Thank you, Heath Ledger/Joker).  So there you have it, I can find happiness in the before and after of a clever concept.
With that said, I also have to wonder sometimes about the importance of sequels. If the tale has been told, I would generally prefer it not to be soiled by a shoddy follow-up. Disney has long been a culprit of expanding a successful story into multiple incarnations. Many of them not worth viewing. Nevertheless, there are notable mentions that should be sought after: The Lion King 2 (Shakespeare really does improve on the African savannah), Toy Story 2/3 (No other franchise could have made me cry in the theatre and proceed to return home, an adult, to play with my childhood toys).  
The reason these (and other sequels) were successful was the planning. Taking time to expand the story with dignity. A haphazard mishmash of ideas cannot be stabilized by even the cleverest foundation. CoughMatrix2/3Cough.  Sequels generally suffer from (what I’ll call) longevititis. The longer they run the worst they become.  
Then, there are the prequels. Their likelihood of achieving greatness is the same as the sequels; dependent on character development, a strong plot and the carefully planned introduction of ideas. Unlike the sequels, these lead-in tales are often admired as an original manner of expanding the franchise. And it can be. But it can’t work for everyone. One such pair occurs in the same universe; the Wolverine prequel paled in comparison to X-Men First Class. The establishment of the x-men was more compelling than the angsty rampages of Wolverine. Another wildly inventive prequel came from a powerhouse conglomerate that I had previously paid no attention to: Star Trek. Nearly everything about its patchwork of stories and characters meshed together seamlessly to introduce the young Enterprise crew.
The biggest drawback of prequels lies in the fact that the audience already knows the characters and has envisioned their beginnings. Sequels remain mysterious, but prequels can be left to the devices of the fans. Due to these expectations, some prior stories can never hold up.
Star Wars. I have few complaints about its prequel trilogy. Beautifully presented, fresh new faces, hints at the original trilogy- what else could I ask for? Unfortunately, I believe the most glaring problem reared its sith head in Anakin’s transition to the dark side. Pitiful. Unbelievable. Laughable, even. I’ll end my grievance there.
Although many times, prequels and sequels have gone wrong, it can be done right. I stand by saying that it is all in the planning. I would rather the preceding installments of a story take years to debut and be inspiring than rush to premiere with a resounding thud. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Writing Tips: The Dirty Dozen

Any writer worth their salt (hey, there’s one!) will instantly recognize this list as the dirtiest collection of overused phrases and concepts known as a clichés. Without a doubt, clichés emerge in all genres and styles of writing by accident, an unfortunate happenstance of the written word sometimes offers no other turn of phrase. I suppose, that is excusable. If done intentionally, I would hope the insertion was meant to be ironic; otherwise their very passing suggests a serious reconsideration of the source material. At least in this writer’s opinion (whose opinion is often snarky…You have been warned). Take careful note of their use so you can avoid the same pitfalls:
1. Mary / Gary Sue. I had to put this at the top because a flawless person can only be found in bad writing. Humans have flaws, so characters should too. I wish everyone would just accept that.
2. Everybody Dies / Lives. The culmination of a great story, no matter what medium, needs to have an original ending. The collective deaths or happily-ever-afters are just plain embarrassing.  
3. Villain Monologue’ing or Giving Hero Time to Escape. It’s ironic and comical in James Bond. It shouldn’t be used anywhere else. A well written villain does not allow for an easy escape nor do they detail their plans to the hero. It’s just bad for business.
4. It’s Been Done Before. This is something writers say. They fear the attempt of a story because the concept has been done before. Everything has been done before in some fashion. Take a chance and make it yours.
5. Friends Marrying Each Other. Two friends from a group getting together stretches this cliché enough. But when everyone marries each other…ugh…if you can’t tell…I’m shaking my head.
6. Bad Boy Can be Turned Good. For some reason this attracts all the ladies. But it’s not realistic. It makes for great emotional scenes, but take it as a red flag. People who are damaged need to work themselves out of the hole. The “bad boy” should too.
7. Damsel in Distress. Women are not all helpless flowers in need of saving. Period.
8. Calm Before the Storm. I’m not sure what storms these people have witnessed. Storms can take a while to build, but they can also be abrupt and violent. Avoid phrases like this that generalize.
9. It’s Quiet. A Little Too Quiet. I wonder what will happen next. Will someone jump out and startle me? I would have never guessed.  
10. The Orphan Hero. If you need to emotionally abuse or seclude your hero at their introduction in order to gain sympathy from readers, perhaps this isn’t your biggest problem.
11. Characters are Either Good or Evil. In life there is a gray area. There should be in writing. Characters can be loyal to a team, yes, but they can also play both sides, or switch sides. These alterations can make this age-old battle interesting.
12. Black as Night / Bright as Day. Redundant much? Description of places, people or things should be done in a manner that avoids obvious or worn-out ideas like this.
Some of these clichéd ideas can be executed well, but typically they just stink of a lack of creativity. Although this lists the twelve most shameful clichés a writer can use in my opinion, I’m sure each and every one of you has several of their own to add. Feel free to comment if you have a particularly irksome cliché you would like to share!  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Conundrums of a Pre-Teen Writer

Age ten is a tumultuous transitional period between elementary fundamentals and middle school regimented work across the spectrum of classes. Pre-teen me was none too happy to discover the workload increasing and my enjoyment in school decreasing. Everything revolved around homework and projects in addition to being introduced to the semi-real world of teenagehood.
One ordinary day in the pastel classroom, wallpapered with artwork and timetables, my teacher assigned to us a short story that would be read in front of the kindergartners. At first this mundane event did not remotely catch my attention. Little did I know, this landmark day gave my creative, proverbial ball another great kick.
While other children were still thinking up ideas, I had started my first outline. While the others fashioned a single sentence, I was three pages in. While my class went to recess, I stayed to write. I had found my calling! Not long into the project, I was instructed that the story only needed a few sentences per page. Ten of them in total. I had ten pages, all right. Ten full pages.
What was I to do? I had barely begun to know my story’s lion family (The Lion King was my favorite movie…ok, it still is), and now I was being asked to cut apart their tale? This not only expanded my experience in writing, but it introduced me to editing. The final sprint to the “finished” line.  More like sprinting on a treadmill. I sat in my cozy desk learning the fine art of being concise. I had to choose what was most important. And I thought it was difficult then, ha.   
I was none too pleased with reducing my wonderful story to a few meager statements, but this lesson played a decent part in preparing me for the continuous road of editing to come. Finally, I presented my story to the kindergartners as planned, but what was not planned was me going off script. My lion tale was written and all I needed to do was read. But I was a budding story teller and my story needed to be told! I recited the story, from memory, to the bright faces of the young students. And although to this day I couldn’t tell you what my narrative was about (beyond lions), I do remember how happy the kids were to hear a good story.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Writer’s Sketch 4: Action

For the expression map, I focused on portraying realistic emotions. An important practice to hone your ability to write expressions realistically is in observing how real people react— the same fact remains true for writing action.

Coming from the experience of writing a heavily action-based series (think: Lord of the Rings), it can be as stimulating to the imagination as it can drain all of your creativity. And to be completely honest, I am glad my future plots do not rely as strongly on extensive action scenes. But a story without action is nothing more than a postcard. A still picture lacking movement. If you want your narrative to be successful, engaging the reader in moments or scenes of action is vital.
The conflict is always set up before any action comes to pass. And action does not need to be a war or fist fight. They can be an argument or evading capture. Even something as simple as a daily routine is an action. For the purposes of this exercise however, I’ll be focusing on heavy action scenes (aka- combat).
Sure, watching human interactions is one option for the study of action, but I find films to be a better decision. Not only can you pause a film (something you cannot do with real life) but you can note the directional cues for showing the specific action. Directors are like visual writers, they have to determine the best manner of portrayal for every situation. Does the light illuminate or obscure the scene? Is the view from the character or an external shot? Does the event take place quickly or frame-by-frame? 
Let’s review the Neo vs. Mr. Smith fight scene from The Matrix. Before they begin to toss punches, the subway is scanned over. It’s vacant. It’s dusty. There’s a tumbling newspaper. Neo has an escape route, but he chooses to stand against the agent. As they fight the perspective changes between Neo and Mr. Smith as well as external shots. Some actions are highlighted while others pass by without further detail. Sure, the atmosphere is tense and the physical exchange is riveting, but you can only learn so much from observation.
When you have chosen a scene to review, watch it several times. Pause to note the intricacies of how it is represented. To sketch an action for practice, use words to describe the same conflict and see how realistic it reads. Sounds simple enough, right? It’s more challenging than you think. After you have executed this sketch several times over, being able to describe your own imagined action will be second nature.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Playing Around with Writing

I would categorize myself as a novelist, first and foremost. I have written short stories (which will be detailed in another post) that have entertained and amused me…for a short while. Although my passion lies in the complexities of a deeply involved story (or more specifically, a series) I don’t shy away from trying my words at another venue. For a class, I even investigated poetry. If a short story was too compact for my over-active imagination, I should have known poetry would not satisfy my need to create a narrative.
Recently, however, I have dabbled in the art of screenplays. I’m finding it especially difficult to subdue my creative urge throughout this journey and yet I keep reminding myself that mimicry is the best form of flattery. I have been so taken by the clever humor of How I Met Your Mother that I decided to base my speculative script on it.  
Although my current fiction series has plenty of dialogue, the skills I have acquired from years of novel practice needed to be adjusted to work correctly in the white-spaced frame of a script. The dialogue laden script has forced me to keep my descriptions succinct while focusing on the verbal interactions of characters.  Admittedly the project isn’t too strenuous because it is a speculative version of Monday night’s greatest comedy, but nevertheless, it is taking careful focus to replicate the characters believably in an entertaining situation.
Seems simple enough. So, what is driving me over the edge? Formatting. Every piece of the script requires different margins and annotations. I wish it would be as straightforward as novel writing where the author can essentially create his or her own format, similar to how one might create a meal. A little of this, some of that, but nothing too strict. No, it’s more like baking where the recipe must be adhered to exactly or something will go awry.
Mimicking the tone of the show provides great practice. After all, writers have to stay on their toes and keep practicing like a visual artist might (as I have previously stated) to encourage the perfection of their talent. Playing all the options and styles gives the practiced writer a distinct advantage. So dearest writers- keep practicing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

You’re sitting silently in front of your writing nook, the backlight of your computer bathing the dark room in a heavenly glow. Hovering above the keys, your fingers are eager to begin typing out your thoughts, but an irritating sensation clouds your mind. A slight pain zips between your ears as if your train of thought has halted on the tracks before a wayward cow. You feel distracted. Drowsy, bored, frustrated even. These are classic signs of the onset of WB: Writer’s Block.
Don’t worry. You are not alone. All writer’s experience it. Whether you’re overwhelmed with a blockage for weeks or just troubled for a few hours, there are some surefire ways to overcome this creative obstruction.
Fight Fire with Fire: Feeling unfocused can be beaten by distracting yourself even further. Run errands to take a break from writing or reorganize your priorities on another project. Spending time away from your challenging task will allow your thoughts to flow easier.
Natural Inspiration:  As I noted in a previous post, you can take a walk in nature to clear your mind and find motivation from your backwoods neighbors. A staycation or vacation can also be included in this category as relaxation is paramount to generating new ideas.
Magnify the Problem: Instead of removing yourself from the situation, taking the block head-on can be just as effective. Ask yourself, Why am I stuck? What is the primary problem? Following this assessment, make an outline covering all facets of your current struggle. Now you can move forward with a clarified perspective.
Subconscious Solutions: Your inability to conquer the block is all in your head. Trust me. Counteracting this internal struggle can also be found within. Free-write without any direction for ten or fifteen minutes and see what comes out. Somewhere inside your answer will arise.
Writer’s block comes down to two solutions: removing yourself from the block or writing through the block. For writers just now facing this age old complication, try all of the options to see which helps you best. Seasoned writers will know whether they need external or internal inspiration. The bottom line is that writer’s block does not last forever. It is curable. It takes a healthy dose of determination and a renewed prescription for inspiration.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review of Once Upon a Time

No, this isn’t the beginning of a story. It would be a bit cliché don’t you think? I promise I’ll refrain from commenting on the lack of creativity in the title (oops, just did) during my review of ABC’s new fantasy drama based on its writing merit.
To start, I must mention that given the intense promotion of this television show and the constant reminder of its successful assembly of writers from LOST, I was disappointed in the premiere. Once Upon a Time (here on referred to as OUT) lacked the same hook of its predecessor and the pilot episode seemed too focused on instant character development where it should have centered on setting up the plot to lure viewers in for subsequent episodes.
With that said, there is plenty about OUT I found intriguing. The parallel worlds are entertaining in two fashions: 1- the fantasy world acts as a traditional escape from reality, 2- the real world hosts playful Easter eggs that hint at their relationship to the fairytale (my personal favorite is the mayor’s apple trees). Suggestive moments where the citizens remember their fantastical past provides depth to both the story and its characters. Generally speaking, fantasy protagonists are adolescent boys (which I suppose they achieved with Henry) so it’s refreshing to have a nearly grown Emma Swan* as the main character and eventual Storybrooke savior. The age twist of Emma’s parents essentially being her peers could also provide comic relief or a dramatic upheaval in the future, but it is likely the focus will continue to shine on Henry for the time-being. As far as characters go, the cast is varied enough to satisfy the many point-of-views and backstories people (read: I) often crave.
The first half of the season will largely be exposition, and the two episodes that started this journey certainly informed viewers of the necessary basics. It wasn’t until the third episode that OUT started to remove itself from expected fairytale drivel into a reinvented, modern take on these classic stories. The Evil Queen or Mayor was more or less one dimensional. Even the removal of her father’s heart didn’t quite sink in giving his short cameo. In episode three however, she took on a compassionate side that expanded her character, giving her room to become a unique villain. Undoubtedly the best part of this episode was the unconventional story of Snow White and her Prince Charming. For one, they actually gave him a name: James. And secondly Snow was not the detestable and gullible girl from childhood stories; she was an independent, thieving miscreant with class.
Although the dialogue is predictable and the stories have been done before, there is a good deal of fresh spin (specifically the characters) on these tropes to create the longevity OUT deserves. This is certainly a tale that cannot be told over a season, and much like LOST it requires numerous installments to properly communicate the intricate narrative. I cannot comment much further since the program has barely stepped into the spotlight, but from this juncture I can say that Storybrooke holds a great moderntale in store for faithful viewers.         

* I felt I had to comment on the last name Swan. Sure, it has a nice symbolism of purity (if only people really knew the ferocity of swans, ha) but it has become overused. Elizabeth Swan, Bella Swan…now Emma Swan? Come on, writers, any other last name would do.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing Sketch 3: Fidel Castro, Beijing, Yo-Yos.

Running a fine-toothed comb through his beard, Fidel smoothed out the smog knots that clung tightly to his hair. If only he hadn’t visited Beijing. What a terrible waste of a weekend, Fidel thought coldly. He recalled the city’s buildings poking above the clouds like the eyes of a hungry Cayman staring down its prey. Disgusting.

He sat irritated in the newly reupholstered leather chair that tucked beneath the awning of his stately mahogany desk. With a few squeaks he inched the chair closer to feel more at ease in his solitary office. Perhaps that was when tranquility should overcome him, but instead Fidel felt an itch. Stretching across the matted top, he reached a calloused hand for the specialty box of Cuban’s that lingered just beyond his finger tips.

A dense, musky smell taunted him as its phantom scent tickled Fidel’s nose. As the perfume seeped into his nostrils and blanketed his tongue with the heavy taste of unbridled pleasure, his craving intensified and he required immediate access to his cigars. Kicking back his chair, he found it blockaded by a pesky floorboard. He was stuck, imprisoned from gratification. “What luck”, he grumbled.   

But, alas! The Yo-Yo from Beijing! Rustling a hand deep into his pocket, Fidel retrieved the meager souvenir. A bright sheen came over the polished wood as Fidel jostled it in the light. His skills were amateur at best, but a proper throw would result in the repossession of his beloved Cubans. Cocking his arm back like a gun hammer and preparing the yo-yo as a bullet, Fidel let off a shot that swung parallel to his desk. The novelty kicked back with a fury, grazing the cigar box and bouncing aloft before squaring Fidel in the jaw. If only he hadn’t visited Beijing.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

National Novel Writing Month

A true challenge in writing is the annual program NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that encourages writers to start a new project on November 1st and complete it by November 30th. There are no prizes as it is not a contest, but your final product must be a minimum of 50,000 words although anything over that is acceptable. That is one tall order, if you ask me. Granted, my first novel is around 90,000 words, but it took me a few months to write and several years to plan (and I’ve been working on its sequels ever since). I adore the concept of NaNoWriMo as it supports authors and promotes them to dig deep and uncover one of the stories hidden within.
Even though this task may seem daunting, I would gladly be an advocate for this exercise. Are you going to come through the month with a polished final draft? In all likelihood, no. Regardless, you will have a solid draft that is completed! And in the process you have the opportunity to network with other writers from across the country and the globe. For a new writer or struggling author, this is the precise atmosphere You Are What You Write endorses.
If I wasn’t already undertaking two other projects, I would try my luck at the NaNoWriMo. I could finally get the idea written that could be best described as a Disney novel. There are so many classic tales out there that could be developed into a Disney themed story. Red Riding Hood for example…well that might be tough to get around the murder and grandmother-consumption. Few tweaks here and there and it could work. Or maybe my long-desired prequel to The Lion King. Did you know Scar’s real name is Taka. That’s a fact, look it up. What made him so sour and delectably disgusting? Coming up with the idea is half the battle. Spending November writing your novel is the other half of the journey.
Take the chance and see what you come up with. If you’d like, share what ideas you have for NaNoWriMo.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Writing Tips: Weather

When it comes to creating a believable setting for your narrative, weather actually plays a significant role in determining the location and its atmosphere. It’s fairly straightforward that a rainy day on a tropical island would be described categorically opposite to a sunny day in the tundra. Just as the lighting inside a room or its contents gives the reader a deep sense of their location in the story, external conditions function similarly but with an additional touch of symbolism.
Most writers would agree that weather is an integral piece of setting the scene. So much so, that in films or television, you may even become blind to the setup due to the expectation of weather. Quick-- what are the conditions in the climactic scene of Titanic? The opening sequence in LOST? Takes a minute or two to remember, doesn’t it? But once you recall the weather, I’ll bet you envisioned the rest of the scene down to minor details. Now I’ll direct your thoughts to how these decisions operate on a subconscious level.
Sun: Along with providing brightness to the landscape, this otherwise bland forecast can offer your reader with optimistic feelings and visceral connections to their own fair-weather memories.
Partial Sun / Cloudy: Not every day is perfect, even in an ideal location like the tropical island. Some locations may be overcast 9 out of 10 days (i.e. London, Seattle). Clouds can signify a looming conflict or confusion in addition to implying a transitional period.
Rain: It’s slightly cliché to set a depressing or end-game scene in the rain, but it does give emotional credibility to the situation. I am more partial to setting cheerful scenes in the rain for a juxtaposition of moods.
Stormy: This is quite an adaptable category. Storms could range from natural disasters to an every-day blustery gust or snow. Generally, Mother Nature’s storms are seen as a form of anger or fury, but it could also mirror an internal conflict.
Final Note: Time of day and the yearly shift in seasons offers another complex layer onto the weather your characters and readers’ experience. Be careful to note these climate deviations when painting your location to gain an extra dose of compelling realism.   

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Road to Discovery

To start this off right, I might as well explain the story of how I became a writer. Or well, discovered I was a writer. It’s a long story that spans several years and barring the passing of a few cornerstone moments, my future could have swung in an entirely different direction. I once wanted to be a vet (says the girl who faints at the sight of blood), but to keep the tale simple, it happened something like this:

On a bright afternoon trip home from preschool my father peered into the rearview mirror, his mustache twitching as he spoke, “What’d you do today, Rachel?”
“First we played games, then we had snack. I was going to nap but the school was attacked by a huge green dragon! It broke everything. We ran into the playground and got to play the rest of the day. The dragon played too,” I explained, giddily kicking my feet together.
Dad’s brow arched as his eyes questioned me from the front seat, “What’d you really do today?”
“I swear, daddy, the dragon came and then we got to use his tail like a slide,” I declared emphatically.  
Noting my earnest smile, he replied the following comment as tenderly as possible, “You’re going to have to call these ‘stories’, honey, or else you’ll get in trouble for lying a lot.”
This was one of many moments before middle school that lit my path as a writer. Sure, entering a poetry contest could be dubbed “the moment”; or maybe it was when I wrote my first short story, but hindsight allows us to assess our furthest memories to determine where and when our road began. Mine was on the road home from preschool the day a dragon attacked. I swear it happened…well, something like that.
How did you discover you were a writer? Leave a comment and let me know.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Blog Re-Assignment

I felt it was necessary to explain the slight changes in my blog from here on out. For the past several months I have thoroughly enjoyed scribbling on the factors that compose me: food, writing and nature. But it is time to pull the You Are What You Write blog together. In subsequent posts, I will primarily be providing writing tips, sketches and anecdotes to support fellow writers and those who wish to become part of our grand fellowship. There will also be segments reflecting the nature loving foodie I am in addition to movie, television and book reviews from a writer’s angle.

As authors of a diverse spectrum of works, we all find the greatest pleasure in passing along the words of our passions, but as a young writer I often felt I was alone in my journey. Accordingly, the purpose of this blog is to offer insight and encouragement to unite our community. Feel free to peruse the bloggings before this post if you would like to better understand where I am coming from and continue to check the following updates. If you share my sentiments on writing and hunger for support, join the community and follow me to the next page.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Natural Inspiration

“How do I solve this problem?” Road blocks arise in every aspect of life, but they are aggravatingly present in your most value projects. What you need is inspiration. However, inspiration can be difficult to find. More often than not nature allows me to access my muse in a manner that encourages productivity above all else. Whether it’s taking a walk to clear my head before work, or using the weather as a sketch tool for writing (future post alert!), the benefits of immersing yourself in the natural world can be directly seen in the rejuvenation of your personal or professional ventures.
As Henry David Thoreau says, “Nature is full of genius.” Whatever your challenges might be, nature is a free and diverse outlet for collecting motivation and thanks to seasons its wisdom is ever-changing. One of the greatest advantages of nature is that it offers separation from technology. Removing extraneous stimuli offers a clear mind to assess your tasks head-on. Allowing yourself to get lost in your surroundings can be inspiring in itself, so take a walk! You’ll be surprised by the increase in ideas you will experience by connecting with nature.
If you need more direction than just the suggestion of using nature as a source of inspiration, first exit your dwelling (be it your urban cubicle or suburban office) and locate a secluded area. This could be a park in the city or a scenic hike in the nearby wilderness—you could even do something as simple as walking around the block. Along your stroll be sure to have your cell phone on silent and focus solely on the dilemma you’re facing. Breathing deeply to maintain a calm state of mind will help with this exercise. Personally, I find pacing to be a good source of time-keeping, but whatever rhythm you’re comfortable with will work wonders to keep you on track. Lastly, let your thoughts flow to entertain your muse’s suggestions and even if something seems unorthodox to start, it may become a solid step towards finding your solution. Cleanse your thoughts and repeat. This practice is simple, but in difficult situations, simplicity is the key to success.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Writing Sketch 2: Justin Timberlake, Mississippi and the Tennis Ball

This is another 15 minute writing sketch using random topics:
The tour bus rolled into the parking lot at half-past dawn for the final concert event in Mississippi. Justin Timberlake was awoken by a glint of sun ripping through the blinds in his mobile bedroom. He had been waiting for this venue for weeks. The stage would take several hours to be raised and in the meantime, Justin was thrilled to be able to explore the great southern city of Jackson. Mapping out his daily plans, he expected a certain detailed route through the area to well calculated stops before returning to the stadium for rehearsal and ultimately the main event. However, this would not be the case.
Stepping into the cramped bathroom where the lingering smell of plastic clung to every surface, Justin scrunched his nose before preparing for the day ahead. Executing his morning routine, he brushed his teeth, shaved and took a shower. Upon exiting the shower, the closet room had developed a moist film on the floor as well as a dense fog that clouded the area. Even through squinting, Justin was unable to decipher where he was in the bathroom.
Fumbling his hands around, he manages to snag the comforting cloth of his towel before bumping into the bathroom door. Distractedly, he rubbed his face, having not noticed the door swung open. He stumbled out into the thin hallway when suddenly his right foot stepped on a tennis ball. Teetering on the ball, his body shifted balance before tumbling head-first into the cabinet beside him. Justin hollered in pain as she crashed onto the floor. Echoes of the bouncing ball permeated his ears, taunting him to stand. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be going out today.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Musings on the Cupcake Craze

In a previous food post, I spoke about a breakfast crawl I made in my area and since then I have worked on completing the cupcake crawl I so deeply desired. The endless variety of flavors and seasonal menus is accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. That’s what was so approachable about the cupcake and the precise stipulation that rocketed it to the top. However, the cupcake craze has peaked and is on its way out. Sure it will remain a cute idea that flourishes in special markets, but as a sweeping fad, I doubt every bakery will bother to boast a spread of cupcakes in the near future.
Before you only see cupcakes at children’s birthday parties again, be sure to try some of the premiere cupcakeries in your area. The Greater Boston region has some delectable offerings and although I have managed to taste several, I continue to work through the list. The hallmark of the perfect cupcake is a moist cake, flavorful frosting and an equal ratio of both. Adding a filling can never detract from the superiority of a cupcake. Three noteworthy cupcakeries with such pinnacle products are Kickass, Sweet and Cupcake Charlies. Each of these locations drew me in through their tempting menus and an unparalleled satisfaction urged me to return.
Eating the same sugary base several times over can become irritating on a cupcake crawl—leading you to crave something salty and savory. Let me be clear, this necessary sugar withdrawal is common amongst mediocre bakeries, but at the aforementioned locations, the sheer amount of options entices you to continue eating or at least purchasing a box to-go. “If these places are as good as you say”, you ask, “how could they ever go out of style?” Remember pet rocks? Fondue? Webkinz? All fads fade. Sure, they linger, but their star power vanishes—as will many cupcakeries. The best will likely hold out (I hope these three sure do!) but some newer, cooler trend will reign over the foodie frenzy.  
 It’s hard to say what it will be. My best guess would be on doughnuts. Why? Well, I bet the same question was asked about cupcakes. And the answer remains the same: Who doesn’t like a donut? Endangered food trends are often the most fun to explore, so search around for a nearby cupcake establishment. If you are in the vicinity of Beantown, support the waning fashion and use one of these cupcake stores to furnish your next special event!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Adopt a Pet, Make a Friend Fur Life

Looking for a furry friend? One of the best allies humans have in the nature world are our animal friends. As I have detailed before, taking care of our planet will ensure future generations are able to live with these majestic animals just as we have. Exotic or wild animals are one story, but I am focused on the domestic animals we have lived beside for years. Plenty of us house these creatures as pets and this is where I come to my point.
First and foremost, this is my opinion and while I do believe it is the most humane and logical route to take when searching for a pet, I have no doubt others will disagree. The concept of a breeder has always baffled me. While Chihuahua’s are cute, natural selection would not have ever evolved the canine into this breed, nor would their feline counterparts ever develop such a varied coat pattern. These traits were entirely created through domestication and breeding programs.  At this point there is no turning back on what is already created, but that doesn’t mean we have to literally turn our back on living pets.
Many people seek out breeders so they can obtain a pedigreed specific dog, cat, what-have-you when perfectly loveable house companions are forgotten at local shelters every day. With a bit of research you may find the precise breed you were looking for, but don’t exclude the thought of saving a beautiful half-breed either. Will you love the animal any less? You may even love them more! You can discover a variety of animals beyond the common cat from rodents to reptiles. These adorable companions are eagerly awaiting a home like yours, so don’t hesitate to visit your area’s shelters for the newest love in your life.  

My personal favorite site for seeking out a pet is Petfinder.com. There is also Adoptapet.com.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing Tip: Say What?

Dialogue is something a lot of blossoming writer’s struggle with due to the variety of techniques and approaches. I find the possibilities for successful dialogue endless. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many ways to create bland, unrealistic dialogue. There are a few basic rules to abide that will ensure your conversation is received as an authentic representation of the interaction.
1-      People do not speak in perfect grammar. Although you may be tempted to keep form and write the entirety of your dialogue as such, remember that you are trying to convey real people discussing a real topic. For practice, pay close attention in conversations to witness how inelegant and stylized human dialogue actually can be.
2-      Carefully emphasize the dialogue with descriptive words that explain how someone said something. Every utterance we speak has a tone or inflection that informs others how we are feeling. We do not strictly say our words. People whisper, shout, guess, explain, reprimand, etc., the list is endless.  
3-      When someone speaks, they also display their thoughts and emotions through actions. Some people move their hands constantly; others are very rigid and stoic. For most of us, the action directly relates to what we are saying. Pair the dialogue with appropriate gestures and movements that coincide with the words when necessary.
It should be noted that not every line of dialogue needs the aforementioned accoutrements. Some sentences are straightforward, lacking any verbal or physical emotion. In that case, just writing the line will suffice. Be sure to practice dialogue so you can get the gist of how to convey different meanings. You could even follow the expression map and focus on specific emotions that arise in conversation. Another option is writing down a real life discussion and see if you felt the same while having the talk as you do after reading it on paper (a variation of this exercise would be copying television or movie dialogue onto paper and assessing its effectiveness).   
Discovering which route works best will provide a practice outlet that ultimately leads to entertaining and believable dialogue.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gifts for Foodies

It’s never too early to think about the holidays. And whether we like it or not, birthdays come around every year as well. A struggling market for these seasons is gifts for foodies. I’ve noticed over the years that foodies are generalized into a single grouping and ideas for their celebratory gifts are lacking creativity. Oh, a cookbook? How original. Unless your friendly neighborhood foodie requests a cookbook as a gift, it is likely something they’ve already invested in so it often reflects the same impersonal air as flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day.
Perhaps we should start with what a foodie is to begin with. We’re normal, everyday people who enjoy the sensory and adventurous experiences food can offer. Some foodies translate that love into their own kitchens, while others seek their cravings outside their homes. Before purchasing any gifts, make the executive decision of which kind of avenue best reflects the foodie in your life. If the person in question dabbles in both, then you’re in luck. Finding a present will likely be easier for you.
Some basic ideas are (as previously mentioned) a cookbook or a gift card. Try and turn these blank canvases into something that will appear more personal. Maybe they are looking to try their hand at Asian cuisine or sample its bounty at the local bistro. However, I encourage you to delve deeper. Kitchen accessories such as towels or trivets parallel the mundane predictability of a cookbook. Peruse specialty stores for ideas. A unique appliance or gadget that allows for an advancement in culinary creativity will reward you with a gold star. Or, treat them to a new food experience. Check out recently opened fare or a multi-course meal. Investigate avant garde locations for a true foodieventure.
Expand your ideas to the horizon and look beyond the obvious. Most foodies love to document their meals, so a new camera might do the trick. Touring an establishment or collection of locations is another possibility. In the same vein, a winery or brewery could really get their juices flowing. If this special person in your life has a more expensive taste, you could invest in a trip to a food-rich community, state or country. Try not to be blinded by the cookbook roadblock and seek individualized ideas that will cater to their refined palate. Happy hunting!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Touring Trophy Town

Have you ever thought you smelt the stale atmosphere of an airplane and felt your heart palpitate with excitement? Maybe it’s a few salty peanuts that get you going, but everyone has a trigger. That sensational feeling of traveling. Sure, airports and train stations can rival the trivial duress caused by a congested highway, but any manner of transportation that removes you from the everyday routine is a welcomed inconvenience. I should take this time to point out that traveling isn’t limited to grand vacations or weekend staycations, these wondrous moments can be found in most mundane of tasks like finding a new route home from work.

Exploration and discovery are deep-seeded needs for us hunter-gathers and I have recently found pleasure in rediscovering the hidden gems of my New England backyard by following the footsteps of tourists as well as seeking out hidden gems. I have been in each northeastern state and seen its main attractions as well as capital cities, but there are still dozens of unexplored locations. My native harbor town being one of them. In order to get reacquainted with my favorite place, I ventured in Boston using a different mode of transportation and walked a different path than my normal visits.

Walking the great city of Boston is an entirely different adventure than skirting beneath it on the T. Quite obviously, you see more. But what’s more important than the stunning visuals of one of America’s oldest cities is enveloping oneself in the beantown atmosphere. Picnic on the waterfront, walk the freedom trail, see a Red Sox game. There are endless options on your visit or daytrip. Be sure to try out quincy market’s sampling of food and while you’re at it, shop around. Find a restaurant or gelateria in the North End (and don’t forget Mike’s Pastries!) to invigorate your senses. Go into the buildings, talk to the people, brave Newbury Street. In the city you can’t be afraid to take chances.

I did my best this day to take routes I had never ventured through before and to inspect the shops I normally pass by. I had combined the best of the tourist and local worlds. And it was only in this submergence of culture did I feel my day in Boston was authentic and unique from all the other migrations. So take some time to explore your neck of the woods or medicate your travel bug and see where it takes you.

Mine’s calling for New York City.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writer’s Sketch: Expression Map

Another great tool in the writer’s arsenal is creating unique, consistent characters. In order to keep these people behaving time and again in the same manner, you should first work on their basic emotions. For this exercise, focus on practicing varied expressions that will arise when writing. By all means, use a character you are currently studying from a published or original text (perhaps even your warm-up story if it’s the same character), you don’t need to create one for this matter.

When describing the person’s changing reactions, be as descriptive as the expression requires. But you don’t want to focus on their every wrinkle either. Remember: People don't always (or only) smile when they are happy. Perhaps your character has a glum outlook and refuses to smile—this must also be taken into account. Fill out the following for a quick warm-up exercise to your writing time period.

I’ll use a character that most people are familiar with so you can notice the subtle changes: Mickey Mouse.

Happy: Thumbing his suspenders, Mickey snickered a bubbly laugh and graciously received Donald’s birthday gift.

Sad: With his ears downcast, the cement sidewalk held Mickey’s attention, its monochromatic pattern reflecting the weight in his stomach.
 
Angry: Mickey furrowed his brow and nose together, sternly scolding his pup after discovering Pluto’s jowls covered in a ruby glaze from the missing cherry pie.

Scared: He gasped loudly and his hands shot upwards to cover his mouth before he lost his balance and stumbled backwards.

Surprised: Despite the flutter of his heart, Mickey beamed regretfully to erase the fright on his face before apologizing to the pedestrian he bumped into.

Flirtatious: Nudging his shoulder against Minnie’s, Mickey’s smirk curled playfully as he giggled.

Reviewing the above expressions you can see how a minute alteration in description or diction can paint the emotion clearly and concisely. Throughout his sketch Mickey adheres to his personality which would provide an excellent base for any story starring the famous mouse to grow from.

Since this is a short exercise, feel free to add more emotions to your list and practice with increased frequency for a stronger gasp on your characters.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Cooking Comfort Zone and How to Get There

Does the idea of baking a cake from scratch terrify you? Is the only option for ethnic food take out? Do you laugh (and maybe cry) at the suggestion of homemade bread? Well, you’re not the only one. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. In five steps, you can transform your kitchen skills from industrial pawn to creative chef.

Step One: Be active in the kitchen. So maybe your meals come from a drive-through window, or out of a box. The first step to becoming a better cook is to take the leap of faith and start cooking on your own. If you already cook, but your skills are limited—keep up the good work. After all, practice makes perfect.  Create simple meals, snacks and desserts. Integrate what you know with fresh ingredients. Although you can use boxed preparation for pastas, potatoes, brownies, etc., throwing in fresh herbs for savory foods and sweet accents like chocolate chips in a dessert will start to grow your confidence.

Step Two: Try a simple recipe. At this point, you should start leaving your addiction to premade foods behind. It’s okay to use this angle as a crutch for harder recipes, but let’s improve your capabilities by seeking out a few simple recipes. For something to cook, try a straightforward stir-fry.  That doesn’t mean its Asian influenced. Toss some similar sized chicken and vegetables together in a pan and cook it up. If you’d like to try your hand at baking, cookies is a good place to start. Search out more simple recipes from family and friends or even the internet.  

Step Three: Buy a cookbook. Now you have several simple recipes under your belt and a solid confidence to increase the difficulty (and flavor!) or your repertoire. Put together a meal that uses red meat or fish as these are proteins that take several repetitions to fully understand at what point and in what manner of cooking they taste best. To keep the menu healthy, use eggplant or mushrooms as the star of the plate. Risotto is another good dish to try. Keep things small for baking. Cupcakes, bars and other petite confections. Search through your cookbook for ideas as it is now your best friend.  

Step Four: Take it up a notch! Experiment with the flavor palate you have developed and start creating ideas for the dinner course. Cirtus and herbs love seafood. Bold flavors beef up hearty meats and poultry has become versatile. Toss accents into salads and sides like nuts and dried fruits. Try making your pasta fresh with homemade Italian bread. Challenge yourself to create complex goodies like pies and cheesecakes. Turn your favorite cupcake recipe into a two layered cake, using the same icing to decorate. Hopefully you’ve found dishes at either end of the spectrum that are your go-to plan for impromptu dinner parties and holidays.

Step Five: Dazzle with your food.  When reaching this milestone, you can experiment with the succulent offerings of the world. Until now you have likely focused on whatever cultural food you’ve grown up with or your region’s staples, but it’s time to expand. Look to the major culinary fads for inspiration and try making a meal you would have purchased previously only at a restaurant. This same concept translates to the after dinner treats. Something as common as ice cream is now within your reach to make at home. Quality kitchen equipment can now be invested in with the promise of a worthwhile reward. Your skills can span breakfast, lunch and dinner and all pit-stops in-between.

These steps aren’t offered as something you can accomplish overnight or even in a week. Becoming comfortable, flexible and self-reliant in the kitchen takes time. But you should enjoy each step as you go and manage them at your own pace. When recipes become effortless you should move your study to the next level. A variety of cookbooks, supermarkets, farmer’s markets and specialty stores are at your disposal for gaining knowledge and encouragement. And once you have completed the process, you can share your newfound wisdom with others through the gregarious gift of global, fun and flavorful food.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Love That Dirty Water

In the lull of a summer afternoon, it can be troublesome to settle on a decent activity that will capitalize on the beautiful weather while simultaneously subduing the heat. If you live near a body of water, then you’re in luck. This past weekend we were visited by family friends and among the joyous reminiscing of how we became acquainted and our cherished Cape vacations, we settled on trying something new. Kayaking. Personally, I had experienced the river’s wonders several times, but there was something almost magical about traversing the placid surf with friends and family.

Based on my past adventures with positive results, I suggested the Paddle Boston company with its variety of launch points. I had never been on the stretch of the Charles we explored that day, which made the trip even more whimsical. New plants and animals revealed themselves around each bend of the river.  Sharing my love for nature with others was a perk compared to the relaxing atmosphere the river encouraged for us to rejuvenate our friendship.

If I managed to swiftly and quietly approach wildlife with an unthreatening behavior, I came within feet of aquatic animals as well as timid birds. Coursing with the current on the return journey, I allowed my hands to linger in the river, splashing the water with appreciation and wonder. If you live in Massachusetts, I advise you to investigate the possibilities the Paddle Boston company has to offer. However, if you live elsewhere in the North East or another region of the country, I am confident similar options are available near you. Even the smallest moment like running your hands through the water can remind you about the world’s grand opportunities and the creatures that inhabit its diverse landscape.