Have you ever seen the aftermath of an exploded, spoiled can of cranberry sauce?
When I was a kid, I didn’t like the taste of cranberries. Mom taught us how to string them with popcorn to make Christmas tree garlands, but eating them? Nah. By my teen years, my palate had matured, and I realized Mom’s homemade cranberry relish was pretty darned good. Made with oranges, a few spices, and not too much sugar, it became my go-to for consuming cranberries. This was way, way before sweetened dried cranberries—Craisins—were temptingly dangled in front of us on TV like the California dancing raisins’ long lost cousins.
The problem with having a mother who made most things from scratch, and very well at that, is almost nothing served by others—individuals or restaurants—measures up. So I tend to take a pass on canned anything. Sometimes my Thanksgiving guests will come with donations for the dinner, which is so very thoughtful and nice. For the record, I prefer fresh flowers or wine as a hostess gift. But once in a while, that donation is a can of cranberry sauce, which I conveniently forget to open and serve. At the end of the meal, I’ll politely slap my forehead and apologize for forgetting. While cleaning up, I feel heartless just tossing it, so the can gets shoved to the back of the pantry. Perhaps my guilt will go away, and I’ll throw it out in a week or two?
Several years go by. I legitimately forget all about it, and if I haven’t cleaned out the pantry (which I almost never do), disaster strikes. Purplish-red gooey stuff goes everywhere. It’s sticky, and it stains, and it’s a pain in the rear to wash absolutely everything down. True confession here, though—it’s only happened once. But once was enough. Some might say I got what I deserved, but I really, really, really hate serving that gelatinous goop. I don’t know why they call the jellied stuff that slides out of the can cranberry sauce. It looks and acts more like Jello. I suppose it tastes like cranberries, in a way. But it’s a far cry from real cranberries.
Another reconfigured and reconditioned Thanksgiving food I can’t stomach is fake mashed potatoes. There are people who buy a box of dried potato flakes (I guess they’re flakes, I really don’t know), mix them with water or milk, and the resulting mush is supposed to be instant mashed potatoes? It’s shocking. That sounds blasphemous on top of unappetizing. Plus they have all sorts of chemicals added to them. I guess I don’t understand, because boiling potatoes, then mushing them up with some milk and butter, is one of the easiest things to do in the world of cooking. There’s nothing complicated about it.
The English and Irish were able to do it, for crying out loud. No offense meant to either nationality, but you are not famous for your great food. We love you for other reasons. (I do have English and Irish in my mixed-mutt heritage). And real potatoes taste good. So I don’t get it. According to info I found on the Internet, instant mashed potatoes have been through ‘an industrial process’ of cooking, mashing, and dehydrating—resulting in ‘a close approximation’ of mashed potatoes. Ewwww. Sounds yummy. Not. Unless you’re cooking for Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, where he uses a gallon of mashed potatoes as a sculpture medium, please try to do it yourself at least once. Your grandmother would be so proud.
What I never figured out was—why Teri Garr made enough potatoes to satisfy a famished fire department when they had three little kids who each probably consumed a couple of forkfuls. But then Spielberg would have had to make Dreyfuss raid his kids’ Playdough stash, and that would have been too hard?
There’s a lot I don’t understand about movies. Like why Bryce Dallas Howard’s heels didn’t snap and break while doing all that running from dinosaurs—through the forest, over rocks, on asphalt—those were some impressive shoes. Or why babysitters open the closet or basement door, when they know darn well what’s behind it? I spent much of my adolescence in babysitting mode, and that is just plain insulting.
I suppose there’s much I don’t understand about a lot of life’s mysteries. But I do understand the wonders of homemade, from scratch—food.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
Author J.D. Allen tackles two difficult subjects in 19 Souls. One is male rape. The other is female serial killers.
From the first line, the plot grabs you. I won't spoil it, but there are several twists that surprise in this story.
The male rape aspect is told well, from the male point of view. Still, today, in many quarters, the whole idea of a man being able to be raped is considered preposterous - making it that much more difficult for the victim to come forward or make a complaint without worries of being lampooned or ostracized. Allen's take on it feels believable. She manages to be in the man's mind and makes us understand.
Apparently, getting deep into people's heads is Allen's specialty. Because the race through this fast-paced book also puts us into the female serial killer's mind. She does it so well, that I almost - almost - started rooting for the crazy killer.
It's a fast, good read. Give it a try.
(First written for and published on Janice Hardy's Fiction University Blog - Dec. 2017)
When you’re starting your writing career and finish your first full manuscript, what should you do next? Besides celebrating by opening that emergency bottle of bubbly you keep in the back of the refrigerator? What was that? You don’t keep a bottle of Champagne on hand? You absolutely should, because finishing the first draft of a novel is a big deal. So take an evening to celebrate, then get back to work.
Should you write a synopsis, or two, or maybe even three, so you’ll have a single paragraph one, a one-pager, and perhaps a multiple pager? Do your homework and drive yourself further down the road to a nervous breakdown as you write, and seemingly forever rewrite, your query letter to send to literary agents?
Well, yes. But not yet. The first draft is only the beginning. A thorough self-edit or two comes next, along with finding a few beta readers to give you feedback. More about choosing those later.
What you absolutely must do, if you want to produce the best book you can write, is take a good, hard look at your ego. Because it’s about to get seriously banged up if you don’t prepare yourself. When we type The End, it feels like giving birth. And that baby, your book, is as precious and perfect as a baby. To you. To everyone else, not so much. (The book, not the baby, who I’m sure truly is/was perfect and precious.)
This is a tough lesson to learn, and you are far better off if you learn it early. If you don’t, your pride in your accomplishment will blind you to any faults in the manuscript. Beta readers and a critique group, if you choose them wisely, will tell you things you don’t want to hear. You’ll go on defense, get mad, and argue with them. You’ll refuse to accept advice from seasoned writers who are trying to help you. Basically, after all that work, not getting your ego out of the way for the next steps is like shooting yourself in the foot.
And, if you do, over time, get the ego under control and ask for help once more, those same people who you sniped at the last time are not going to want anything to do with it—and quite possibly you—again. You’ll have marked yourself as difficult.
Find a few beta readers. They cannot be a relative, in-law, or a good friend. Because they love you, and no matter how many times you stress that they should be absolutely honest with you—they will not do it. If your book is terrible, they will lie and say it was great, while swearing they are telling you the truth. This is not a bad thing. The people who love us want to protect our feelings. It’s kind of their job.
So—how to find readers who will be honest? Ask your friends who belong to book clubs for the names of members you don’t know who regularly go for your type of book. Or call that friend who reads a lot, they’re bound to know others who do also. Don’t ask someone who reads/loves thrillers, horror, or fantasy, and zero cozies at all to read your cozy mystery. When you find these people who do not know you, call them and ask if they’ll read a PDF copy. Then ask if they think they can be brutally truthful. Explain to them that you’re most interested in getting any weak spots corrected before you send it out to agents, and they’d be doing you a wonderful favor. That the only way to be sure you’re sending out your best efforts depends on them. That way, you’ll have given them a mission. They’ll want to be helpful and will make notes about pages or sections that weren’t clear or anything else that bothers them.
This is where a lot of newbies panic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But how do I know they won’t steal my book and try to publish it as theirs?” There are a few reasons that won’t, and doesn’t, happen, but perhaps the best way to allay any such fear is—these days, when you create a document on Word or Libre, or whatever you’re using, it’s immediately time/date stamped as being created by you—using your name. The software does it automatically. And every time you make a change, it notes that as well. You’ve got an iron-clad chain of custody for proof that it’s yours. So take that worry off the table.
When they’ve finished the book, ask them questions. Lots of them. Take notes. And listen. Don’t interrupt their answers with a defense. Take your ego out of it. Ask them if the oh-so-clever plot twist you put in Chapter Twenty surprised them or did they see it coming? What part or parts of the book dragged for them? Did they find themselves skimming over pages? Which ones? Why? Do any of the characters seem shallow? Like they’re out of central casting? Which ones did they like best/worst and why? Was the ending good or predictable? Did the overall plot make sense? Did they get a solid image/understanding of the setting or time period? I could go on all day, but you get the idea.
After many years of training, I finally have my mother able to give me honest feedback. I want hers because she reads everything. She’s voracious. If my plots or characters seem trite or done to death elsewhere, she’ll tell me. But I think my mother is the exception to the rule, and it did take years to get her there.
I’m telling you all this because I wish someone had told me in such an unvarnished fashion. I didn’t get belligerent way back when, but I did put up defensive barriers. In doing that, I delayed my progress as a writer. In not knowing the advantage of putting ego aside, I found criticism and rejection so hurtful. Had I known to find avid readers to test-read my book, I would have saved so much time in getting to the polished version it finally became.
Do yourself a huge favor. Send your ego on a long vacation.
That’s what my older sister, my dear departed Stephanie, labeled the weird phenomenon of always—as the old knight in the Indiana Jones movie said—choosing poorly.
You walk into a bar with a few friends. There are enough vacant stools, all looking perfectly fine. You choose one. While the others in your party take their seats, you hang your purse on the hook under the counter, then boost yourself up on your stool. And it’s the one with a leg shorter than the other three. It’s the tippy barstool. Every bar has one, and you’ve picked it. Again.
My family excels at this. Welcome to our world. A world where your brand new package of three pairs of socks has a sock missing. You have five socks, not six. The package hadn’t been opened—it was simply a freak from the factory. Or your seat on the plane is in front of the only kicking toddler on board. You get the idea.
Nowhere does Tippy Barstool Syndrome kick in as hard or as often than at the grocery store. First you select a cart. So many to choose from, yet you take the one with the sticky wheel. The next has loud, squeaky wheels. A third has gum stuck to the underside of the handle. Around you, other shoppers are putting no thought at all into cart selection. They simply grab one, and off they go happily—on silent and gliding wheels.
As you peruse the store, placing items in the cart, Tippy hovers like Eeyore’s dark cloud. The first bag of flour you lift has a rip on the bottom that you don’t notice until it leaves a trail of white powder and the floor feels slippery. You glance down to notice your new shoes are dusted white. The first jar of jam you select has its little safety bubble already popped. The yogurt container’s sealed top has a slit in it. The bag of M&Ms was opened via the bottom seam by somebody sneaking some out, and they spill everywhere when you pick it up.
You’ve completed your list. Now you scout out the shortest or fastest line. You zip past all open lanes. For each line of customers, your brain is calculating, rapid-fire, what types of people are in that lane and how much they’ve got in their carts. A line may have fewer people with fewer items, but experienced shoppers know if more than one of those waiting are elderly, skip that queue. You don’t want to be smiling politely while grandpa can’t figure out the debit card or granny endlessly searches for her checkbook, then takes five excruciating minutes to write the check. Are there any harried moms with screaming toddlers? Does the cashier look new? Does the bagger pack slower than sludge? So many factors, and your brain calculates them brilliantly.
The analysis from your logical quadrant reports in, and you get in a line. Two people soon stand behind you. And this is when TBS kicks in. The customer at the register realizes she bought a wrong thing. She panics, says “I’ll be right back,” dashes out of line, and disappears down an aisle. The rest of you make small talk about the drivel on the gossip magazines’ covers in the checkout rack. Which, I have to say, are so unfair. Either the celebrities are too skinny or they’re too fat. Whatever the starlet weighs, it’s never good enough for the tabloids. Alien babies, however, are never criticized on those covers.
I’m digressing. After a few minutes of us showing incredible patience and restraint in resisting eye rolls and sighs, the lady scoots back, apologizing. Those who can’t fake a nice reply merely nod. She pays and vamooses. The next person does everything right, but the register runs out of receipt paper.
It continues like that as the lanes on either side flow effortlessly along. I often tell people I meet in line to memorize my face. If they ever see me in line again, they’d be smart to get in a different one.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.