I want the old Cadbury eggs back

Cadbury creme eggs used to be awesome. Remember that? For years now, though, they have not. The eggs were reduced in size sometime after 2005 in the American market, and in 2010 finally in Canada too. At the same time, their price has shot up astronomically. You used to be able to find the eggs for 33 cents each, 25 if you hit a sale, and now most stores sell them for 89 cents at the smaller size. It’s ridiculous, and somebody must pay.

Two things have always really bothered me about the size reduction, quite aside from the fact itself or that the eggs are nowhere near as moist and delicious as they used to be. First: they lied about it. The company’s site claimed, at least until they were caught outright, that the eggs weren’t any smaller. Dudes, man up. Hostess was forthright when their new post-bankruptcy entity went with the smaller sizes that had been tried just before they went under. Nobody likes that change, but we respect them for not trying to pretend it away.

The other thing that bothers me is a real puzzler: What kind of moron says “Let’s make our product smaller just in the US“? This is ‘Mer’ca! We like everything big. We’re the country that isn’t squeamish about putting caffeine in any kind of soda we frelling well choose, because we’re not freaking pansies. This is the land of the Big Mac, the land of steak and the barbecue. Giving us the kids’-table version of something Europeans can still get full-size, even something Canadians can get full-size, is like giving us the finger. Only it’s much, much worse.

The fact that at least Canada is now stuck with the smaller size is no consolation; it only means they were screwed over second. An across-the-board size reduction I could grudgingly understand, even though it has led to an inferior product. It’s not cool that the product isn’t as good, ounce for ounce, as it used to be just as a result of being smaller. It’s not cool that the price went sky-high in the last few years while still dealing with that reduced quality. But it’s especially not cool that somebody had the gall to say “Eh, let’s just make them smaller in America; they’ll never notice.” And then they lied about it.

So when I become a supervillain, the Ministry of Resurrected Products is going to have a heavy hand in setting things right. For the rest of the job, I’ll sic my Ministry of Compliance on them.

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Sent from my [lair] with [vengeance]

I’ve expanded my to-do list again. When I become a supervillain, justice will be done upon the makers of Tapatalk and similar apps, for their ubiquitous annoying signature lines.

While it’s way too early to consider the specific form said justice will take, I’m thinking loosely about some combination of clowns, air horns, and Creed.

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I hate this part

It’s as I feared: This has not been a “normal” spring so far, in spite of my hopes that the fairly typical winter would translate to one. Yes, we just had a mostly rather beautiful weekend, but the second week of April has come and gone with no Zoo Day. When this happens, it means we get a flash-in-the-pan warm spell like the one we just got, or none at all, followed by temperatures dropping back down into nature’s “screw you” range with lots and lots of steady rain. That’s where we are right now.

Today it’s rainy. Horribly rainy. It’s coming down thick everywhere, the sky is gray, and it’s cold. This grates on my nerves to no end, and is the thing I hate most about spring. When a Zoo Day comes in its proper time, it’s easier to deal with because then at least I’ve been out to enjoy the nice weather before we got the obligatory crap. I’m already cruising at a 7 on the Nicki Minaj rage scale, completely irrespective of much of the music I heard earlier today (it would be higher).

I imagine people who are much more affected by the seasons than I am, move. I couldn’t do that; I really do love where I live. But winter does wear on so, and there comes a point you just need good weather to arrive and stick around awhile. That point is usually in February. This hasn’t even been a bad year, as oppressive winters go; I’ve had to deal with some that stretched on into freaking May, with temperatures hovering around 50° for six weeks while Mother Nature gives everyone the finger. But I’m always a wee bit pissed off when the weather doesn’t cooperate in early April, if just for a few days.

The good news is that the sun might come back out in a few days. The bad news is the temperatures are doing that low hover thing for the foreseeable future. And for right now, we have plenty of gray and rain. Argh. This is going to need a lot more bacon.

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Epic grill lunch (and more)

Last weekend it was finally just warm enough, and dry enough, to get out the grill. I did some chicken; not bad for an inaugural run for the year, but steak awaited. This weekend was much nicer. Saturday was in the mid-60s and mostly sunny, and today had a chance of rain but it never materialized, so we ended up with a day that was even warmer and sunnier. Hey, I’ll take it.

On Saturday’s menu: garlic teriyaki rib-eye, honey mustard chicken (for my wife), salt potatoes, and mushrooms in butter. This took some logistical planning. I started out by giving a 1½ lb. bag of baby white potatoes a good scrub under water, and then popped them into a pot. I used, oh, about 4 cups of water and just over 1 cup of kosher salt. Probably should have been more, but they came out okay. Around the time they came to a boil and were turned down to simmer, I turned on the grill to start it heating up. But before that, the 6 oz. package of baby bella mushrooms went into a foil boat with a stick of butter, which I crimped shut along the top as best I could. Finally, the meat and mushrooms went on. The steak had been marinating overnight, and the chicken breasts were already marinated. The mushroom boat went up on the warming rack. The potatoes were done before the meat was ready, which gave me time to deal with them before finishing everything up.

Everything came out wonderfully. I will confess that I think I prefer straight teriyaki on steak, vs. garlic teriyaki that I think works a bit better on chicken wings, and I do like to add Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and pepper to the mushrooms but wanted to share them with my wife. No regrets of course, just things I might be inclined to do differently another time.

Later that night, I had to decide on what to make for dinner and chose to fry up my leftover salt potatoes as epic home fries. I’ve tried this before and it was relatively successful, but this time I knocked it out of the park. Taking about half of the batch of salt potatoes (that’s what was left), I cut them up into small pieces: roughly sixteenths. Into my big 12″ frying pan went a couple pats of butter, and I kept the heat on high to medium high. Once the butter melted, I put in the potatoes. Those got stirred around for a while, until I was ready to bring on the herbs. For flavor, I sprinkled on some thyme, crushed rosemary, and a few grinds of black pepper. After that cooked a little more I decided more butter was called for, and added about three more pats. Once it had all browned to my satisfaction, I put it in a bowl and topped it with some shredded cheddar, which melted all on its own. Good gads, it was glorious.

As for the rest of the weekend, well, tonight I kind of blew it. I took a stab at making proper macaroni and cheese, which meant a proper sauce, which usually means a roux. I’d never made a roux before, and this one I feel I may have botched. I started out with ¼ cup butter, the same amount of flour, and 1 cup of milk. I don’t think I gave it long enough before adding the milk. Once I did add the milk, it got way, way too thick, like runny mashed potatoes. I added 1 cup of shredded cheddar, and then it was both too thick and not cheesy enough. I added a little more milk and a little more cheddar, and fixed the thickness but not the inadequate cheesiness. This was all mixed with half a pound of elbow macaroni.

What I did notice about this sauce though was that it had a bit of a baked taste because of the flour. Since backed macaroni and cheese is basically just all this, baked, I’m wondering if I should just let the leftovers—which are in a Pyrex dish—come back up to room temperature, stir in a crapload more cheese, and chuck it in the oven for a while. It’s a dicey proposition but if it works I get awesome macaroni and cheese. I don’t think I could make it any worse, unless the Pyrex held the chill from the fridge too well and cracked from thermal shock. That might be reason enough to transfer to another dish first.

Also, next time I’m deviating from roux tradition. Equal parts butter and flour is too darn much flour for me. It obviously thickened plenty well, so half that would be fine.

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Excerpty goodness: Below

Having already posted an excerpt from Below, which was the first chapter, it occurred to me that the fourth chapter is actually rather well suited for this purpose. It came up in a discussion of stupid characters, and I remembered how in the original novella, Gareth was ridiculously impulsive at the beginning, and killed someone to set an example. It’s one of the villain clichés I hate most, but I still fell for it. Even worse, the very same story established later on that Gareth hates to waste his assets. This was incongruous.

So here’s what that part of the story looks like in the novel. This is the fourth chapter, Gareth’s introduction, following a botched wagon robbery. Here’s what you need to know: The four highwaymen are Brenish, Naman, Tibs, and their leader Harry. They just screwed up a job. Brenish and Gareth are both obsessed with the ruins, experts in its lore. Being also a liar of great prowess, Brenish has also been given a fake treasure map to sell; he has a reputation for never swindling adventurers and always offering them good advice. At first he wanted to leverage the map to fund an expedition of his own, but Naman—the only other person who knows about the map being a forgery—talked him out of it. The new plan was for Brenish to find buyers over the winter while working a proper job in the city, so that he could pay part of the bride price demanded by his love’s father before it was too late. After the robbery went sour, all of those plans have fallen through and Brenish has snapped from hopelessness.

Okay, one other thing: For their banditry, Harry invented a character called “Alfie” whose role is played by different people and in different ways on each job. The men sometimes wear fake scarves and other disguise gear, and always disguise their voices. No consistent descriptions, therefore, have ever surfaced.

Continue reading

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Another round of blurb don’ts

Again I’m amazed at all the stuff I see in blurbs that has no place there. Not just indie blurbs mind you, but at least we indies have the excuse that a lot of us are new to this, and as everyone has said, blurb writing is hard. Building on the lessons from my first post, and the one after that, these are more things that I see a lot in blurbs that writers really, really need to stop doing.

All of these cases fail the eye roll test. I see these and I wince. Not all readers will react with such strong disgust, but that’s not really the reaction you want anyway, is it? So don’t use…

Future tense

“Along the way, Bob will discover that…”

Stop! Stop right there. Blurbs have room for two tenses: past and present. Mostly present. Think about why this is: The blurb is basically a window into the early part of your story, the hook that will make the reader want to buy the book and invest in the second and third acts—or more, depending on how many acts you have, but let’s go with three. The best blurbs are always told from the perspective of giving you a very brief summary of the first act, and/or a brief insight into how the second might begin. Think of them as being temporally very loose, with a very nebulous definition of “now”, a cloud hovering somewhere around the close of the first act and maybe spilling into the second a little bit. When you see past tense in blurbs it’s usually reserved for back story.

Why is it this way? The first act is basically always just setup; no story comes into its own until the second act. Readers are most drawn to this moment of transition, when the events leading up to the awesome thing they’re about to read (or heartwarming, or poignant, or what have you) will really begin to unfold. That’s what will tell them what sort of story it is, so the blurb basically ultra-compresses the setup and dangles some tempting carrots to suggest what might be in store next.

Future tense looks weak. Seeing blurbs from this perspective, it’s easy to see why: It means you’ve succumbed to the temptation to throw late-book spoilers into the blurb. If late-book elements need to be in the blurb, they should be very vague, set up as goals or possibilities rather than things that will happen. This is also a really good indicator that you’re kitchen-sinking. It’s so tempting to throw anything into a blurb that ends up being a really big part of the story, but surprisingly very little of the book will ever be blurb-relevant. If you can’t express a possible plot point without “will”, it almost certainly doesn’t belong there.

Kitchen-sinking is a topic for a whole other post, but really it’s such common sense that I’ve never run across an author who was unaware of the need to trim things back. It’s just that it’s difficult for them to decide what should stay and what should go. Where something occurs in the story arc is a good tool for choosing what to keep.

Too many tones

This is one that doesn’t come up too much, but it’s worth mentioning. One writer was trying to work out a paranormal romance blurb for a book that was serious in tone, but had lots of funny moments. She tried to capture both the funny and the serious in the blurb, and it did not work.

Honestly, any reader is going to expect that a serious story will have moments to make them laugh. A book that can’t evoke laughter, even just a mild internal chuckle, probably sucks. If humor’s not the main point of your story, then it shouldn’t be in the blurb. You may find a way through clever phrasing to allude to it, but it’s better to pick one major tone and stick with it. If you can find a way to imply it’s not all “The world is at stake!” with very minor touches, go for it.

Blurbs are very much like poetry this way. It’s about economy of words and using them to say everything they can. Only most people suck at poetry. If you can’t find just the right words to imply there’s a little comic relief—or perhaps, a little more than normal, since the reader should assume there’s some—then don’t try. If your book is more serious than funny, go with serious. Reviewers and your preview will handle the rest. Just maybe don’t go with too serious. Try to find the book’s “median” tone and go with that.

“This book is about…”

Robot Love is a story of bittersweet romance set in a dystopian future.”

Remember what I said about talking to the reader? Well go back and read it again. It’s in my first two posts on blurbs. Remember now? Good. Suffice it to say we don’t do that here. That’s for amateur hour.

Saying the book is about X is talking to the reader. Therefore, you don’t do it. Now you’re allowed to do a form of this (by which I mean it works, as opposed to not working) when you’re simply saying how many words are in the story or if it has a place in a series, as I’ve mentioned before. Saying “Robot Love is the sequel to Tinker’s Dam” at the very end of the blurb is utterly legit. But saying what it’s about? No, not so much. That’s the job of the blurb proper.

Is there bittersweet romance? Blurb’s job. Is the setting dystopian and in the future? Blurb’s job. If the blurb didn’t say this already, even indirectly, it’s broken; fix it. If it did say these things already, why are you breaking the third wall just to say them again? This is also where writers love to say things like how their book is fast-paced, exciting, heartwarming, etc. Again, bad move. Imply that in the blurb or give up on it.

There are other forms of this, too. “Blue Dawn follows Emma as she learns to cope with the collapse of her engagement.” (In case it wasn’t clear, none of these are real quotes.) Again this is telling the reader, directly, what the story is about instead of saying what’s going on with Emma. “Emma is still trying to cope with losing her fiancé to another woman.” So much better! The first way is: “Hi, I’m the author, and I’m here to tell you about what a wonderful book I’ve written.” The second way begins by telling a story—in brief—and wants the reader to feel compelled to learn more.

In fact, you might just want to keep the “Hi, I’m the author” test handy. Anything that sounds remotely like it in tone is bad for blurbs.

Unbeknownst to the princess, but knownst to us

“Little does she know her life is about to change.”

The same writer I just mentioned did this too. Not to pick on her, but she kept inserting this horrible cliché back into her blurb repeatedly. I literally said “Kill it with fire.” Still it kept coming back. No really, kill it with fire!

“Little do they know” is not a horrible phrase, but it’s staler than three-week-old bread. Can you honestly read that without rolling your eyes? Even if you can, it’s not effective, is it now? No, it looks like the writer fumbled about in a grab bag for something to say, some kind of segue, and this rotten little chestnut is all they got. Keep digging! There are pistachios in there somewhere.

It’s hardly the only terrible cliché to disgrace many a blurb. But the point is they stand out; if you can’t see it, seriously heed the advice of someone who can, and learn how to hone your eye against more. Cheese is for eating, not for blurbs.

This is really worse than the dreaded “when”. It’s almost worse than…

Care Bear moments

“Together they will discover the true value of friendship.”

What I said about future tense still applies. This is bad on a whole worse level. Are you writing a kids’ book? Okay, then. But if you’re not, then don’t do this, ever!

Blurbs trying to tell me the moral of the story are like stumbling across a bad ’70s cartoon where a bill wants to become a law and it’s all set to awful proto-country folk music. (If you don’t remember Schoolhouse Rock, you have my envy.) It’s lame. Lame lame lame lame lame. How lame is it? It’s lamer than a redneck tow truck operator on a pseudo-reality show making up fakey backwoods similes to say in the TV promos. Lamer than the laugh-freeze-credits moment at the end of every show in the ’80s. Lamer than the school scenes in Star Trek: TNG. Even lamer than that stupid Buzzfeed article about 40 things every self-respecting man over 30 should own.

This is no place to be lame. The end of a blurb is where you really need to set the hook. That’s where the stakes are raised, the goals are set, the protagonist has a job to do or die trying. The curtain is going up on the second act. Make the reader want this moment! Yes with an exclamation point! But not really; don’t use an actual exclamation point. That’s the level of tension you want to project, though.

If you can ask yourself if this is something you’d see in a blurb geared towards kids—I mean young kids (whose parents will read the blurb) or middle grades—and the answer comes out yes, you’d better actually be writing for that age group. If not, the blurb has some growing up to do. It will have to strike out on its own, meet new friends, and learn that gathering an audience is every bit as important as having a story to tell them. (See? I told you it’s lame!)

So many blurb mistakes are ones I see writers carry forward from the days they read voraciously in school. Those blurbs are hopelessly outdated, and what’s more, they’re geared to children. Now granted I see many mistakes in traditionally published blurbs too, but you can hang that on the publishers just not caring enough to get it right. They have certain stock formulas they use, and they just wing it. You can do better.

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An e-book decoration idea

Recently a question came up where a writer asked others who formats their e-books. This felt like an odd question to me because I’ve always gone the DIY approach when it comes to formatting e-books. They’re pretty simple to do and there’s very little you can do with them. I follow a few golden rules:

  • Don’t specify any fonts. Just use “serif” and “sans-serif”.
  • Don’t have a specific base font size, and just make any styles with larger text use relative styles. (Yes I’ve broken this in the past; I’ll correct it in the future.)
  • Specify all sizing, like indents and margins, in terms of em units (i.e., relative to font size).
  • In the original document, never use tabs; the style should do the indenting.

And that’s it, really. To convert from Word to an e-book I save as filtered HTML, remove a lot of useless crud from the styles and clean it up according to the above rules, and remove any lingering inline styles. Then I run it through Calibre to convert to epub, and convert that to mobi. It’s pretty basic and I’ve never thought much of it. In Below I’m doing a little bit more with the table of contents because the book is broken out into five parts, but otherwise it’s just like any other e-book I’ve done.

But in the thread in question, some authors insisted that professional formatting could make a huge difference and be noticed by readers. Some formatters will deal with issues like extra blank lines and tabs and such to make everything look right, but honestly that’s my job as the author; I don’t consider whitespace patrolling to be a selling point. So what does that leave? That question baffled me, because e-books aren’t terribly flexible. There are certain things you shouldn’t do because they may work in one reader but not another, and many readers are customizable.

I took a look at what one of the authors in the pro-pro camp was doing for formatting in their books. According to Amazon’s previewer, they used images for their chapter headings (black on white, with some blue) so that they had a custom font, and all their body text was bold. I’m hoping the bold body text was a previewer error, but if so then it probably means they tried to do something clever with the formatting that wasn’t widely supported, leading right back to my point that e-books aren’t very flexible. If not, it means they put it all in bold on purpose, which is awful. But the image thing isn’t a lot better; many readers can choose to give their devices a different color scheme, like black on cream or white on black. So I distrust images used for this purpose, and consider them a non-viable option; images should be for the sake of including illustrations.

Font embedding is another thing that can be done in e-books. It shouldn’t—not for body text. Each e-reader has its preferred fonts that are basically chosen to fit that device. If your oh-so-wonderful font ends up looking bad on that device, that’s a problem. Readers may turn such fonts off, and the device may not support using embedded fonts at all. What then?

In the course of this discussion, though, I saw something curious. One formatting company claims they can make pretty, artistic scene breaks—something beyond the three asterisks I normally use—even in an e-book. (In a print book you don’t really need these except at the end of a page; a blank line will usually suffice.) It turns out, however, that they too are using images. And it occurred to me that this is a place where font embedding could actually shine. Font embedding may be able to do more than I thought.

Now here’s the catch: If you embed a font, you absolutely have to be prepared for it not to work. Whatever you do with font embedding has to be built around this concept. That means if I found a font that was nothing but pretty scene breaks, or one with lots of beautiful fleurons (this word was new to me until recently, but I love it), you couldn’t embed use that font as-is. Because if the device can’t support fonts or the reader turns them off, you don’t want a rogue Q hanging around on a blank line where a fallback like three asterisks would be better.

Which leads me to my idea: If you make your own fonts, your own fleurons and scene breaks and other stuff, you could make a font where there was just one glyph: an asterisk that looked like a long decorative line. You could make another font where the asterisk was utterly blank. End result: If you use the blank font for the outer two asterisks and your decorative one for the middle, suddenly a simple three-asterisk scene break becomes a decorative one on devices that support it. This is also completely compatible with print.

A similar idea would be to take a non-printing character like a space—or, in the event of any issues, a non-breaking space—and assign a glyph to that. Then you can have a decorative flourish or fleuron at the beginning of a chapter or other such places, even in an e-book and even when the color scheme changes. This might be limited because you won’t ever have as many placement options as you would with full HTML and CSS, but it’s enough to still do a lot of awesome stuff. And since some e-readers can support drop caps via CSS, imagine what a drop cap would look like illuminated with vines and scrollwork and what have you.

I’ve begun the first stage of testing my idea by creating some decorative scene breaks in Inkscape. I want to import those into a font, but Fontforge appears to be crashy and my alternatives look quite limited. I’ll find a way. I’m curious to see where it will work and where it won’t, because anything that I can use to give my books a leg up on formatting would be great.

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