Subtitle blues

The first book of Merchantman Halflight needs a subtitle. I’m finding this tremendously difficult.

When I originally envisioned the series as a Webcomic, I planned each printed book (they all do that, so why shouldn’t I?) to cover about 150 issues. I was fortunate enough to nail exactly the pace I wanted in the novelization. The comic’s first book I originally thought should be subtitled Five Stars as it literally takes place in five star systems; the second book’s subtitle I’ve had in mind for just about as long, and I think it will work perfectly as-is. The third and fourth books, and a prospective fifth (I don’t have the scripts to fully cover it yet) are also easy to subtitle.

But for the novel, I don’t know if Five Stars will cut it; it’s too cheeky. My current working concept is Get a Crew, which effectively is how the book opens and works on a lot of levels—but the level it doesn’t work on is punch. I just don’t feel moved by it, and if I don’t feel moved, will readers?

Titles are the absolute worst. There are people who say that about blurbs, but they’re wrong; titles are way harder. Not that this series is going to be easy to blog anyway. This, minus the fact line, is what I’m looking at (first draft) for the first book’s blurb:

Best friends Cole Brinnet-Gur, captain and legendary cheapskate, and Vince Jozig, ever searching for his fourth concurrent girlfriend, are ready to expand their interstellar shipping business. After clawing their way out of debt and parting ways with an insane cook, they need a proper crew for Halflight. What they get instead are a trigger-happy ex-mercenary who once blasted a city into orbit, a young pilot named Mishap, and a hard-pranking, hard-partying engineer with purple eyes.

With the jury-rigged old cruiser long overdue for repairs, Cole is beset by constant demands for parts and supplies. Vince’s decisions about cargo, relationships, and cuisine are as questionable as his grasp of ethics. But their worst headache of all is security specialist Ryxissa and her best friend Old Jack, a monstrous gun she’s happy to introduce to any pirate, thief, or petty annoyance standing between her and the end of a three-year quest.

Surviving the pirate-infested trade routes of the Fringe is enough adventure for anyone. Halflight’s new crew has to survive each other first.

What should be patently obvious here is how far I had to deviate from my normal “formula”. There’s no act structure nor even a real possibility of one, so temporal focus is much looser and aims for about the 1/3 point. This is an ensemble cast and there’s no way to focus on one character very easily. It’s heavy on detail to the point of kitchen-sinking, but it’s a deliberate choice for comedic impact; I do think it plays better in humor blurbs than in others.

But none of that helps me pick the best subtitle. These books would be pretty unblurbable if I didn’t already have a lot of practice writing blurbs. I have far less practice picking effective titles and subtitles. (My first book’s title was sort of a “best I can do” choice after the first two choices fell through.) There’s an art to it. I’m happy with the choices I have in mind for the later books, but this one is tricky.

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Halflight Lives!

I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo this year, but I had a darn good excuse: I was already frantically working on adapting my long-dormant comic into a novel. This past weekend I finally finished the first draft, and managed to fly through a rough edit of the first draft.

The effort started in July, but it didn’t really get rolling hard until much later, so all things considered this book came together really fast, at very much a NaNoWriMo kind of pace. That’s the benefit of having it all scripted out, I suppose. The hardest thing I ran into was the adaptation barrier, trying to figure out what scenes couldn’t work, what could, and what of the former could be saved.

A few jokes fell out along the way and, honestly, I’m fine seeing some of them go. But a few new ones unexpectedly fell in, so the trade-off was worth it. Another benefit of the scripts is that I was able to insert foreshadowing or simply fill in details that don’t come up till much later, so that everything feels more connected.

The first book finished exactly where I wanted it to. Word count is slightly higher than expected, but not by so much that it’s far out of line with my original goal. I wanted around 80K, and got about 82K.

Now the hunt begins to settle on a subtitle, and I’m going to start looking into cover options. I think this is the kind of book where I could composite a cover with stock photos myself (except, of course, if I wanted to include the ship on the cover), but there’s one major problem: I’d want a cover that said it was both sci-fi and humor, and that’s a hard pairing to achieve.

In the meantime I’m still moving forward trying to get Below out of post-production hell. I still have a goal of getting that out before the end of the year.

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Cheddar apple cheese ball, Mark II

A quick update: I attempted to make my cheddar apple cheese ball again, following my exact recipe from last time but with the addition of ¼ tsp. xanthan gum. Instead of taking 36 hours to firm up enough to work with, it took only six and firmed up enough to be handled easily. It still needed a little more time (another 12 hours) for the flavor to develop a bit more, but the cheese was plenty spreadable, just as before. I bought dried apple but didn’t bother to dress this one; it was just an experiment.

Now I’m starting to wonder if, for presentation, rolling it in light green food-grade wax after shaping would be a cool way to go.

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Chicken soup with potatoes

Having come down with a cold recently, I decided the time had come to try a hand at making chicken soup. It’s something I always wanted to try, and while the canned stuff gets the job done it’s nowhere near as good as homemade. Fortunately, between my wife and me I’ve had a lesser case of this, and felt okay on and off to shop for what I needed—and then later to cook.

My mother often likes to make, as a winter meal or when people in the house are sick, a light form of chicken soup that she throws together in a crock pot with chicken, potatoes, and carrots. I wanted to do something very similar, but in a bigger batch than my small crock pot can manage—and quicker. Adding to the challenge was that because my wife eats low-carb, potatoes and carrots weren’t an option for her so I wanted to make a second soup with mostly just chicken.

Oddly, I couldn’t find any recipes for chicken soup with potatoes, but what I did discover was that chicken soup is apparently hard to screw up. My first go at it was a huge success, so I want to share my recipe.

Chicken soup with potatoes

  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 12 oz. potatoes, cut in small chunks
  • 12 oz. fresh boneless chicken pieces
  • 6 oz. baby carrots
  • 3 oz. celery
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
  • Parsley
  • Salt (preferably kosher or sea)
  • Black pepper

Clean and cut potatoes. Chop celery into small pieces. Add potatoes, carrots, and celery to pot (4 qts. or more). Add chicken broth, bay leaf, and a little salt (about 1 tsp.) stir, and cover. Bring to a boil. After boiling, add Parmesan, stir, and reduce to simmer for about 10-15 minutes depending on desired doneness of potatoes and carrots. Re-cover. During simmer, cut chicken into small chunks: about an inch across. When potatoes and carrots are close to done, remove pot lid. Check broth for seasoning and add salt, pepper, parsley, etc. to taste. Remove bay leaf. Add chicken and return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer again. Cook for about 4 minutes, until chicken reaches internal temperature of 165°.

The potatoes I used were baby whites, the kind I buy when I make salt potatoes. Because the skin is thin on them, I didn’t bother peeling the potatoes. I like my potatoes and carrots very soft, and ended up simmering for 15 minutes to get there. The celery also came out soft; I wouldn’t have minded adding it a little later, but I was just as happy with the way they were.

What I liked most about this soup, hands down, was the broth. Everything else was great, but the broth was awesome. I remembered from an episode of Chopped that Geoffrey Zakarian likes to use Parmesan rinds in his soups to bring out amazing flavors. Also, I was aware that Parmesan is packed with glutamates for a rich, savory flavor. The quarter cup was an absolute wild guess, but it was right on the money.

It’s hard to say how many portions this makes. For my purposes, about three: I took about a third of it in a fairly large bowl, and got plenty of everything, and I’m just taking a wild guess that it was about a pint. I put the leftovers in a Pyrex 7-cup container, which it fills a little over halfway, so I think the math works out.

Since my wife can’t stand celery (except if it’s mush, like mine was—but why risk it), and shouldn’t be eating cooked carrots or potatoes, I went with something more basic for her. For the same amount of chicken I used three cups of broth, still the one bay leaf, same amount of Parmesan, and only salt as a seasoning. I tasted that broth during cooking and was quite happy with it as well. That made probably two portions, because it’s just meat and broth.

Unusually for me, I have no tweaks in mind for next time. I’m entirely satisfied with how this soup turned out, and would gladly make it the same way again. If you’ve never tried Parmesan in a soup, it’s time to take that delicious leap. I would at least suggest using actual cheese rather than the pre-grated stuff you shake on spaghetti. Probably high-quality cheese would be amazing, but the Wegmans brand shredded stuff was plenty good enough for me. I still had some on hand from the stuffed shells I made a while back.

Bonus benefit: If you cook your own soup, the steam in the kitchen is kind of a nice break for inflamed sinuses.

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A goal in sight

I mentioned a while back that I had started novelizing my long-languishing sci-fi comic, Merchantman Halflight, with the intent to develop it into a series of humorous books. At this point I’m pleased to say the project is coming along very nicely.

Something weird has happened along the way, in the course of transitioning the story from comic scripts into a novel format. Gags that worked before have had to be completely repositioned, or some jettisoned outright, for the story to come together. Wherever possible, I’ve tried to save the most important jokes I could. And in some cases, I’ve even had the opportunity to add new interstitial content. Oftentimes, dialogue that spanned several issues is combined into a single scene, but not necessarily in the same order. (I call it the Peter Jackson effect.)

Adaptation is a weird, weird thing. I wonder if this is anything like what Douglas Adams went through, taking his original radio scripts and making them into his seminal novel (and sequels). Gads the world is a worse place for the loss of his talent.

My goal all along for the first book was to stop at around 80,000 words. That’s a good length for something relatively breezy in sci-fi, but I was concerned it might be hard to wrap that up at a good place. With the comic format, I originally had an idea all along that I’d do print versions about every 150 issues, and conveniently the first major story arc ends right about there. Unlike Rich Burlew, I never approached any of this with anything like long-term planning.

Fortuitously though, the need to rearrange major parts of the story and combine several issues into one scene, skipping others entirely, has brought me to a good place numerically. I’m currently sitting at about 45K words, just past issue 89. The story arc I wanted for this book all along would end after issue 152 or 153. According to the math, at my current pace that means I can expect the book to wrap up exactly where I wanted, with about the word count I wanted. For the first draft, anyway; it will need tinkering.

I couldn’t be more thrilled, though. I’m going to make it! Now I’m shopping subtitles, hoping to come up with something good. Back in the day, I used to think I’d call the first book “Five Stars” because the story arc I intended takes place at, literally, five different star systems; it always did seem a bit cheeky though. I’m playing with the idea of “Get a Crew”. It would fit in a number of ways. For the second book, the subtitle has been long locked-in and I only ever considered changing it when I was concerned the first book wouldn’t cover the whole arc.

After that comes branding a series and coming up with good typography and iconography to tie everything together. As the wise man said: Those are good problems.

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Time to revisit the cheddar apple ball?

Another writer on kboards recently floated the idea of some kind of group cookbook, which got me to thinking if there’s anything I could contribute. Most of my recipes are simply copies of other recipes that I’ve tweaked, but I can’t say they’re very original. That’s not to say I couldn’t write a cookbook of my own anyway; I’m given to understand the ingredients themselves aren’t subject to copyright, just the actual text.

But the most truly original recipe I’ve come up with has to be the cheddar apple cheese ball. Working from nothing more than a basic technique, I played around until I found something I liked. I’m very proud of it, and it’s darn tasty.

However, in hindsight I realize the recipe was never perfected. The cheddar apple cheese ball takes 36 hours in the fridge before it even thinks of holding a shape. It’s far too loose, even after the extended chill. This is a logistical problem that makes it very hard to work with. It comes about because there is a lot of liquid in the cheese ball, which takes several tablespoons of cider as well as 3/8 of a Granny Smith apple (to 6 oz. of sharp cheddar).

The solution, I believe, is probably xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is not only an emulsifier, but can give things a creamy texture. I’ve never worked with it, but I have to imagine this is the magic bullet. The only trouble is, I don’t know how much to include. My gut says I’m going to have to play around and try to get to what I think is a good consistency during the mixing process; if the end result is resistant to falling back into a mush, that’s a really good sign.

The outer coating is something else I’d like to improve. I used dried apple pieces, which took a while to cut up into tiny bits, and were all but impossible to work with without corn starch. But all my other ideas are terrible. Thin candy coating: unworkable. Pieces of hard candy: sharp shards. Chopped nuts: texturally repellant. Chocolate: inappropriate. And the list of bad choices goes on. I may have to resign myself to cutting up more dried apple bits when I try this again; it’s the best thing I can find.

If the xanthan gum thing works out, I really want to revisit my other cheese balls. The cheddar bacon ball was a smidge too firm and could have benefited from more water; xanthan gum would help balance that out. Likewise I thought the savory ball was too crumbly, so adding more water and something that would stabilize the result into a creamier finish would be best.

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Reminder: Turn off those headlights on Halloween!

I’ve mentioned this before, but with Halloween nearly upon us it’s time to put the word out again.

Parents (and friends of parents!): If you drive your kids around on Halloween, when you park on the side of the road, Turn off your headlights.

There are people who think that illuminating kids makes them safer. These people did not think it through. When you’re in the driver’s seat on the side of the road, you can see the kids just fine; oncoming cars cannot. For them, the kids are backlit and your lights are blinding them. This is a really great way to get your kid hit by a car.

And I’ve said this before and will say it again: If you do this with your high beams, you deserve to be mauled by a skunk.

If you want kids to be safer on Halloween while you take them around, by car or on foot, just buy a bunch of reflectors and glow sticks. They’re not expensive, and kids will enjoy the glow sticks. Heck, even light-up LED pendants and other such stuff will work. That way you and the cars have a much better chance of seeing them, and they’ll be safer all around. Kids win, parents win, drivers win, and insurance companies win.

But mind you, if there are street lights then there’s a good chance drivers can see your kids just fine anyway, if they’re not being blinded by opposing headlights and if you and the kids are smart about when you cross the street. The extra reflectors and such are just a good idea if you’re worried about their safety. When I was a kid we didn’t have any of that, but we also lived in a four-street trailer park with very low traffic. I’m just saying if you want to beef up on visibility, go with an option that isn’t stupid.

Also if you do stop the car somewhere, do it on the side of the street, not in the street. And if you want to talk to a friend who’s stopped there, that’s cool, but get out of the friggin’ way when traffic comes.

Please pass the message on, and make sure others pass it on too. (I don’t necessarily mean linking to this post; that’s up to you, but I’ve never liked chain posts or chain mail. But tell somebody and make sure the message gets momentum.) We need this message to go viral so people stop being so stupid and reckless with their kids’ lives in what they think is an act of safety.

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