Friday, August 1, 2014

GUEST BLOG: Katharine Kerr on "The Obligatory Scene"

There are some scenes in a movie, play, or story that the readers want to see and will feel disappointed if they don=t see them. Sometimes these scenes are not strictly necessary to that elusive beast, The Plot, but that doesn=t matter. Readers will feel cheated if they=re not there.

Consider the end of THE RETURN OF THE KING. It would have been possible for Tolkien to leave out the bit where the ring goes into Mt. Doom. He could have kept the point of view on the battlefield with the other main characters, waiting and hoping C until suddenly, off in the distance, the volcano blows. Someone could cry AFrodo=s done it, he=s destroyed the ring!@ I suspect a great many readers, myself included, would have muttered something most unflattering to the author at that point and perhaps even flung the book across the room.

Obligatory scenes can occur at other places in a book than the end, of course. Another example from a fantasy novel: two characters are riding toward an important destination. Alas, the only road runs through the mountains in a pass known to be infested by bandits. What=s more, the enemies of the two characters are probably waiting there to ambush them. They head into the pass. Chapter Break! They are riding out of the pass, quite beaten up, to be sure, and talking about what a stiff fight they had, there in the pass. Why the editor allowed this writer to get away with this lapse, I don=t know. I sure wasn=t impressed enough to read another book in that series.

Nor does the obligatory scene have to be a large or violent confrontation or action sequence. It can be a simple emotional moment or a conversation. For instance, in real life history, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I never met. On stage (Sardou, I think) and in many movies, they have met, because hell, they really should have, and the audience wants to see it.

Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

[food] More Amazing Things To Do With Winter Squash

After my last post on expanding the possibilities for winter squash (including pumpkins), I mentioned butternut squash spoon bread in the discussion. The resulting enthusiasm ("You have a recipe?") has emboldened me to continue.

Butternut Squash* Spoon Bread
*or other sweet-fleshed winter squash; if using pumpkin, adjust for sweetness

1 c. peeled, finely diced butternut squash
1/4 c. flour (we use brown rice flour, but ordinary wheat flour is fine)
2 T. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. double-acting baking powder
3/4 c. polenta (coarse ground corn meal)

3 beaten eggs
1 1/2 c. milk

2 to 3 T. butter or margarine

1/2 c milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Mix the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately. Melt the butter in a deep, oven-proof bowl or casserole dish, swirling to cover the sides. Combine the two mixtures. The result will be quite liquid. Have faith. Then pour the remaining 1/2 c. milk over the top. Continue to have faith. Bake 45 minutes, then check the center for doneness. It may take another 10-15 minutes. The result should be custardy in the center, browned around the edges, slightly puffy, with little bits of squash visible. This is supposed to make 4 servings, if people don't fight over it.

Kadoo Bouranee (Afghan Sweet Pumpkin)

2 lbs pumpkin or other winter squash, chopped in 1/2"-1" cubes
2 T oil
1 tsp crushed/minced garlic
1 - 2 T grated or minced fresh ginger
1 c water
1/2 - 1 tsp salt*
1/4 - 1/2 c sugar or honey*
8 oz tomato sauce

1 tsp ground coriander
black pepper to taste
*start with smaller amount and correct seasoning before serving
steamed rice
Greek yogurt, seasoned with mint leaves (optional)
ground lamb, seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed until browned and thoroughly cooked (optional)

In a heavy, lidded saucepan, warm the oil and briefly saute the garlic and ginger. Add everything else and bring to boil. Cover and simmer about 20 minutes, until the squash is tender.

Serve over steamed rice, topped with Greek yogurt and then topped with lamb, if desired.

Pumpkin Rice Pudding (from Pumpkin: A Super Food for All 12 Months of the Year, by DeeDee Stovel)*
*I have not actually tried this recipe. If you do, let me know if it is as luscious as it sounds.

5 c. milk
1/2 c arborio rice
1/2 c pureed unsweetened pumpkin
1/3 c sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c raisins (optional)
1 egg
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract

Heat the milk, rice, pumpkin, sugar, cinnamon stick, and salt in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan and steam rises. Reduce heat to low and gently cook, uncovered, for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the pudding thick, but still soupy. Stir frequently, especially toward the end of the cooking time, when the mixture thickens. Add the raisins, if using, in the last 10 minutes of cooking. If possible, put a heat diffuser under the pot to keep the heat evenly distributed and to prevent scorching. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Spoon some of the pudding into the egg and slowly add the resulting mixture to the pudding, stirring constantly and keeping the heat low. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes or until the pudding thickens some more. Remove from heat, stir in lemon zest and vanilla. Cool slightly before thoroughly chilling. Remove the cinnamon stick.  8 servings

Friday, July 25, 2014

Keeping The Faith, or Can You Change Your Name Without Selling Your Soul?

I wrote this essay in 1997, when the world of publishing was very different from what it is today. Back then, who could have anticipated the revolution in epublishing and the way it has given rise to self-publishing and independent publishers. Upon reflection, however, I think it's worth considering. Let me know what you think!

Many recent articles in newsletters, magazines and websites describe the dire state of publishing and the difficulties which writers face in order to break in, let alone survive or flourish. Conventional wisdom resonates with images of loss and scarcity:

"The midlist is dead!"

"IDs (Independent [Book] Distributors) have imploded!"

"If a single book fails, your entire career is finished unless you change your name!"

"Media tie-ins and franchised universe fiction are squeezing out original work on bookstore shelves!"

The background to these declarations is grim. Approximately 50% of all novels marketed as first novels are in fact written by established writers seeking to escape from poor sales figures. This situation benefits publishers because they then need pay only first-novel level advances for solid, midlist‑level books. The average advance has not increased in a decade, while those for a few, more highly promoted books have skyrocketed, further fueling the "boom or bust" polarization. Bookstore chains occupy an increasingly large share of the market and their computerized ordering practices base advance orders on the author's previous sales. Some critically‑acclaimed books sell so poorly that their authors have difficulty finding a publisher for their next work. In this age of micro-management by distant multiglomerate corporations, the success of a book can be determined before it appears on the shelves. Publishers hold "autopsy" conferences to discuss why a book which they believed would do well "failed" in terms of sales.

Advice is easily given in an atmosphere of unspoken desperation. Sometimes the suggested tactics succeed: a byline change or a switch to a more commercial form of fiction may rejuvenate an author's sales or at least subsidize more serious writing. Too often, however, such changes are proposed and undertaken without consideration of their emotional implications. Well‑meaning advice gives special privilege to forces which are inherently beyond a writer's control and which have to do with merchandising, not creativity. The writer who follows such advice unsuccessfully is particularly vulnerable to feelings of guilt, regret, loss of artistic identity, and betrayal ("having sold out.")