Monday, January 31, 2011

Pasta with a Mexican flare

In my pursuit of healthiness, I've been making up recipes in addition to playing with other people's. The other day I wanted something pasta-ish, easy, and healthy, so I rummaged through my cupboards and came up with this:

Easy Mexican pasta

8 oz whole wheat pasta of choice (I used rotini)
1 14 oz can tomato chunks
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
1 4-oz can chopped green chilis
1-2 tsp taco seasoning
1/2 C sliced olives
1 cup lean meat (I used some super lean elk sausage, but chicken or hamburger would be just as good), cooked and chopped small.
1/2 Cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 Cup shredded mozzarella or cheddar cheese (part-skim mozerella is healthier)

Cook the pasta according the package directions. Drain it, then put back in the sauce pan and add the tomatoes, sauce, chilis, seasoning, olives, and meat. Mix it all up and add the cheese. Heat until the cheese melts.

Yes, it really is that simple. This was a big hit and I'll definitely make it again!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What I learned from judging the Whitney Awards

Okay, first things first, the Whitney Awards is a program to recognize great writing by LDS people. Some of the books have LDS characters and themes, but many do not, and there were big national titles that qualified this year all over the place from Anne Perry, Allie Condie, James Dashner, Brandon Sanderson, Jessica Dy George, and Richard Paul Evans--and this list is nowhere near complete.

I had a book nominated for Whitney last year and my second book, Rebound is currently up in the romance genre, but I don't think I had any idea how much work, or how difficult judging was until this year.

Last summer I was asked if I would judge in the historical category. When I look at some of the other book lists, I'm relieved that I'm reading historical: Romance has twenty books; YA speculative has twenty-four books, and YA general has another twelve books (and some of the judges are reading in BOTH YA categories!). I've spent most of the past two weeks working my way through the books in my category--of which there were nine, though there are only seven listed on the website.

This was an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. First, because I haven't read a lot of historical books of late, and I was amazed and excited about the incredible skill some of these writers have. Second, because deciding how to rank the books was so hard! There were definitely more than five books this year that deserved to be finalists, and trying to figure out how to rank them was no picnic.

But this is Writing Wednesday, so let me get back on track--the things I learned from reading these books:

1) Most of the time a complex plot is an incredible thing, but sometimes, it can be a detriment. As a reader, I need to be able to fall in love with at least one character, and spend enough time with them to worry about how things are going to turn out. If I don't spend enough time with someone I can care about, I guarantee it's going to be hard for me to care about the book. And if I want my readers to care about a character, I need to make sure they get enough face time to make it real.

2) Even someone who is appallingly evil, given pure motives, becomes likable. This gives that characters so much more depth and richness, makes them more real. This is something I'm going to strive to improve in my own writing.

3) The Catholic church circa 1275 thought eunuchs couldn't go to heaven because they didn't face temptation. Really? What happened to the other six deadly sins? Okay, this was way off topic, but I'm still shaking my head over it.

4) I'm still awed by anyone who has the guts and fortitude to write historicals because as much as I'd love to finish that WWII story I started like a decade ago, the research still scares me, so hats off to all of the authors, whether they make the top five or not.

And nominees, the competition was fierce, so be proud of what you accomplished, and that you made my job hard, whether your book becomes a finalist or not.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Yummy whole wheat rosemary pizza crust!

So I've been doing a diet game with a bunch of ladies where we break into teams and add up points for eating right and exercising throughout the week. A little healthy competition has helped me stay far more on track than trying to go it alone. Basically we eat five small meals a day with a carb (whole grains or fruits only), a lean meat, a healthy fat, and then we need to eat about four cups of veggies spread out however we'd like through the day. This has been a big change for me because I've had to get really creative with my meals when I've always eaten a pretty carb-heavy diet.

In this vein, I've been looking up and adapting recipes that fit the parameters of the contest, and are still interesting and yummy. Last week I tried a whole wheat pizza crust--only the recipe I looked up was only half whole wheat, and half white flour, so I made some adjustments. What we got was a crust that's crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, and even my husband--who usually tosses the edges to the dogs--ate the whole thing.

I actually used wheat that I'd sprouted, dried and then ground into flour with my little hand-crank grinder, but you can (obviously) use whatever comes to hand. Plan to start mixing this a good three hours before you want to eat because it is a yeast bread and has to go through two risings. Alternately, you can mix it in the morning and let it raise in the fridge through the day, then do the second rising while you prepare ingredients that evening.

Rosemary Whole Wheat Pizza Crust

1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tsp yeast
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
3 1/2 C whole wheat flour
3 Tbsp gluten
2 tsp finely chopped rosemary, dried

Mix sugar, warm water, and yeast in a mixing bowl. Almost all yeast sold in stores now is the instant kind that you don't have to let grow first, but you can if you like! If you do use the other kind of active dry yeast, use a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon. Mix in the olive oil, salt and gluten. Then add the flour slowly until a dough ball forms. This is when I added my rosemary, but before you add the flour might be better. Knead the dough on a lightly floured counter top for about ten minutes, or until it makes a nice smooth dough ball.

Place in a lightly greased bowl (I use olive oil) and cover with a dish cloth or piece of plastic wrap for approximately an hour or until doubled. I grease the bowl put the dough ball in, and then rotate it so the whole thing is lightly covered in the olive oil.

When it's has doubled you can split the ball to make two pizzas about nine inches in diameter for thin-crust pizzas or leave it as one ball for thicker crusts. I made a pizza that covered the top of a standard-sized cookie sheet and it was a nice in-between thickness. When you have a compact ball (or two) allow to rise another forty-five minutes.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and prepare your dough for the pan. You can roll the ball out with a rolling pin, and then stretch it carefully on your fists until it fits the right shape, but I just rolled it and spread it on a lightly greased cookie sheet (again, I used olive oil).

Load it up with whatever toppings you choose and bake for 16-20 minutes, or until the edges start to brown slightly and the cheese melts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

He said/she said

Speech attribution can be a sticky thing sometimes. You want to make sure your reader knows who's speaking, and you don't want to get too repetitive, which leaves many writers searching for new and different ways to explain who's talking.

First, never be afraid to use the word said if you need to--it's practically invisible to the reader, so it doesn't stick out as much as trying to use something new and different on every page will. I probably use said or asked ninety-eight percent of the time, leaving a few spots for words like replied or replied. Then when I use a different attribution, it carries more weight.

Better still, though, is to find a way NOT to use a direct speech attribution. One thing I often see in new writers is the tendency to write dialogue with a speech tag, and then in the next paragraph put in what they were doing, ie:

"I'm going to the movies tonight. Want to come along?" Randy asked.

He crossed the room and picked a cookie off the plate.

"Can't too much homework tonight. And would you leave my cookies alone? Go get your own," Clyde said.

He swatted at his twin's hand.

A much better way to handle this is to use the action in place of the speech attribution:

"I'm going to the movies tonight. Want to come along?" Randy crossed the room and picked a cookie off the plate.

"Can't too much homework tonight. And would you leave my cookies alone? Go get your own." Clyde swatted at his twin's hand.

This makes it obvious to the reader who is speaking right off the bat, and streamlines your dialogue. Yes, sometimes you have to use said or asked, or some other speech tag, but mixing things up makes things more interesting for the reader.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: "Lipstick Wars" by Christine Thackeray

I'm going to be honest here, when I heard the premise of this book I thought, really, another cheesy book about relief society sisters? Didn't we leave those behind in the early days of LDS fiction? The truth is, yes, yes we did. Lipstick Wars is not cheesy, or overblown or super preachy or any of the things I was afraid of when I picked it up.

The story starts with Eden, wrapped in nothing but a towel outside after having to jump from the shower and run through her suddenly-busy neighborhood to grab the two-year-old, who had gone streaking (literally) down the sidewalk. And there's a cop driving over to speak to her, because her neighbor is just nasty enough to turn her in.

Oh, well, I'll give you the blurb:

Meet Eden Duncan, a young mother of two who has things completely under control--well, kind of. Her two-year-old has suddenly become an expert escape artist while her sweet three-month-old takes a lot of her attention. Her husband, Josh, is constantly at work, leaving Eden to maintain a run-down home and an overgrown yard. And on top of all that, a grouchy neighbor is determined to tear down Eden's house to make the property into a park!

When her neighbor escalates their war to dirty tactics, Eden must rely on a most unexpected resource--her visiting teachers. From early morning walks to the ward "nerd" party, to new friends and neighbors, Eden discovers that sometimes prayers aren't answered in the way we would expect.

Filled with zany humor and tender moments, Lipstick Wars is a visiting teaching adventure you'll never forget. Christine Thackeray once again brings us a story that touches your heart and fills your soul with laughter.

I love that Eden's visiting teachers/partenr all have so many honest foibles and struggles, and though they totally misread each other to begin with, they manage to figure out a way to be friends and support each other, and as I said--it's not cheesy and preachy, just good, clean fun. I think there's something in here for any woman to connect with, from young mothers on up.

To learn more about Christine's visiting teaching adventure series, or learn more about the author, visit her website or her blog.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Plot? What plot?

I admit, if you look at my first book drafts, you'd be bored out of your skin because I didn't understand the basics of plot. In fact, I had been writing for something like six years before attending a conference where I heard something that really helped me understand what I needed to do to make my stories work.

Since then I've read a lot of books, blog posts, and articles on plotting. Most recently I attended a workshop where Dan Wells gave his theory on plotting--and luckily, he's posted his presentation on Youtube for anyone to see. This is a 5-part presentation, and I've watched parts of it multiple times as I've worked on new stories, reminding myself of what makes plot great in a quick and dirty explanation (compared to reading a book, anyway!) that really helps put it all in perspective. Make sure you click through and see the other four parts!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

January blues

I've spent an awful lot of time dreaming of spring the past few weeks, and hope to dig out my seeds, peer into a few of my flower catalogs, and do some serious winter sowing. Never heard of winter sowing? Read my article here, it's a two-parter. It's a great way to save major bucks and get your seeds planted now so they'll start to grow when it heats up outside, and it works!

It's also time for the quarterly writing challenge on Tristi's Challeges blog. As usual, I've set the bar high (what's the point, otherwise?), but left myself some wiggle room to go with whichever project is yelling the loudest. I have to read Whitney nominations this month, which is taking up a huge amount of my time, but I'm seriously enjoying the stories and am going to have a tough time deciding how to vote! Because of this commitment, I decided I would try to complete at least two of the following this month. Three would be even better:

1. Catch up corrections suggested by my critique group on SAB.

2. Do one more draft on my mystery/romance so I can start taking it to critique soon.

3. Rewrite Blank Slate so it'll be ready for submission to agents

4. Make corrections to my culinary mystery and send it out for a final round of critiques.

5. Finish my WIP and do a second draft to prepare it for critiquing.

Yeah, I've actually worked some on three of these projects and seriously need to focus on one at a time so I can cross them off my list!

I think my next book needs to take place on a Hawaiian island so I can make myself warm through descriptions of the hot sun, the cry of gulls, and the sound of the surf rolling up onto the shore (don't you feel warmer already?) As it's negative one degree outside now, and I have to leave the house in thirty minutes, I can use all the warm thoughts I can get!

Because I know I need to get back on a schedule again, I'm going to have Random Thought Mondays (which may include stuff about gardening, cake decorating, my pets, or whatever else strikes my fancy, but will hopefully at least be interesting), Writing Wednesdays (with a writing tip, an interview, or something else useful) and Friday book reviews from now on. Yes, yes, I know it's Tuesday already, and I'm posting my Monday post. My bad.

Other great news since I was posting regularly: both my books are now available on Kindle and Nook (woohoo!) if you're more inclined toward ebooks than hard copies, go check out a sample.