Book in flux

I’ve recently had the privilege of getting some excellent feedback on Gray Area, which I’d like to get released at some point. This is the kind of book where I really needed feedback, though, because it raises such huge questions and the goal is a book where readers might still be questioning how they feel about it a long time after it ends.

Having another pair of eyes really helps, especially when it comes to blind spots and oversights. Things I didn’t see on my own become a lot clearer when highlighted by a thoughtful reader, especially when it’s things I missed—and holy cow did I miss a big one. I’m taking those notes seriously, so I’ll act on most or maybe all of them. (For a couple I still haven’t figured out how they’d work, but they’ve got me thinking in some new directions which is a good thing all on its own.)

One of those changes involves changing up fully half of one of the two main story arcs, and I’m still trying to figure out how radical a change I can commit to there. This concerns a big reveal that currently happens at the end, and it’s been suggested that it should go in the middle instead. I tend to agree, except there’s an open question of whether that reveal should be complete—fully in the open—or if it should be one-sided. I’d prefer to go with the one-sided option, because that gives me the hope of making surgical changes that will still have a big impact but not require ginormous swaths of new text. The full open approach means basically the present-day portion of the last half needs to be redone to a much larger extent, and I don’t know how I feel about how the truth being fully out would alter the dramatic tension.

Most of the rest falls into the category of tweaks: especially at the beginning where the character arc needs a softer slope, a much more measured approach than is currently shown. I rather suspect I fell into the trap of sticking with the momentum of the original short story in that section, and I couldn’t get past that in my head. Beyond the beginning, there are opportunities to sprinkle some other ideas in that would help sand down the sharp corners and also fill in a few gaps I didn’t realize were there.

This will be an interesting project. The catch is, NaNoWriMo is coming and I want to be totally done with this—or else I’ll need to put it down for quite a while—before November. Preferably it should be a decent amount of time before November so I have a bit of a mental refresher.

During NaNoWriMo I’m going to continue the Paranormal Curio series, and I still have only a handful of ideas to throw at it. But I hope I have enough to come up with a strong narrative. The working title for the next book will be revealed in November.

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A Fair story

The Great New York State Fair has come and gone again, and as always I’m sad to see it go. I had wanted to go in a lot more than I did this year, but one factor stood solidly in my way: the heat. I went in for dinner briefly on the first Monday and it was so hot and humid I couldn’t handle it for more than an hour and a half. This past Saturday was another hot one, and it ended up being my last day at the Fair. I heard they surpassed all kinds of records on Labor Day, but good gads it was too hot. I have never done well with heat.

But this is not a story of this year’s Fair. This is the story of why I gave up rides on the midway.

Let’s jump back in the wayback machine to the magical year 1993, fully 25 years ago now. I was 16, and that year I worked at the milk bar. If you’ve never seen it, the Fair has a venerable tradition in which within the Dairy Products building, there’s a bar that serves milk (regular and chocolate, and in the distant past other flavors like orange or strawberry) for a quarter. It’s just a little cup of milk but people love it.

Some days I’d work the front side facing the building interior, and some days I’d work the back by one of the building entrances. In front you’d get to see more of what was going on, including the daily entertainment (not always a good thing), but it was incredibly hot. In back you could get a nice breeze, especially when it rained, but you had to contend with a loudspeaker (thankfully gone now) repeating dairy industry jingles. On breaks I went to my mom’s office which was nearby, where I could sit in air conditioning and got free Pepsi or Mountain Dew; at lunch I’d grab a hot dog for a buck at Twin Trees which has a stand right outside the milk bar entrance, and then walk to the office. I did a lot of reading.

I had one day off during that Fair: the second Friday, student day. I ended up still going in, but as a reveler, and my cousin who lived in Rochester joined me for the day. He’s about two years younger than me.

You’ll recall I said this story is about rides, so hopefully you’ll forgive the digression on the milk bar business. (The bad karaoke and the country bands I endured are another story for another day.) Let me explain about the rides: My family never had a lot of money growing up. My sister and I hardly ever got to go on rides, except some special times. Once we had a pass we could use for free rides, because a family friend was in turn a friend to the people who ran the event. But for a few years before and after ’93, we had access to cheap ride ticket books. For several years we were in that sweet spot when we could afford to go on all the rides we wanted, and didn’t have that little voice in our heads yet (or in our stomachs) that said we should pace ourselves. It’s like that feeling when you get to be an adult and have your own money, and for a brief few years you can buy all the cookies but can’t see a reason not to.

So on that fateful day in ’93, my cousin and I went in and toured the Fair. I hadn’t gotten to see a lot of it, really, because I’d been at the dairy building most of the time. We looked around. We did rides. We bought stuff. We ate. We did rides. And it was somewhere in there that we encountered the dreaded Tilt-A-Whirl.

As a kid, rides on the Tilt-A-Whirl never went long enough. In theory you have some control over how you swing, but the rides always seemed to last like 30 seconds and by the time you figured out how to really get your whirl on, it was over. This time was not that time. My cousin and I were darn near the only people on the ride at that time, for whatever reason, and the operator was generous to a fault and gave us the ride of our lives. We had time to figure out how to maximize the swing we got out of our pod, and it seemed like the ride went on for something like 15 minutes. It was probably more like 5-10. But I do believe that nobody else in the history of the world has ever experienced such a deep and fulfilling ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl as we did that day.

Unfortunately, as soon as we got off we both realized we’d made a hideous mistake. Motion sickness slammed down on us like an anvil.

We tried to fight through it. We drank a little something. We sat. Eventually he suggested we try going on the ride with the swings that dangle, because that only goes around in a simple circular motion and it might be pleasant, possibly resetting our equilibrium a bit. I took him up on that, and to my surprise, I think it did help a little. We had a nice easy swing and when we disembarked, I felt somewhat less horrendous than I had. My cousin wasn’t so lucky: as soon as we got off, the pizza and curly fries he’d had earlier made a break for it. Some of it splashed on my shoe.

After that, rides weren’t the same. Even with a year of distance, I found rides were too prone to cause motion sickness. I could do a few simple ones, here and there, but my interest fell right off a cliff. I literally no longer had the stomach for it. Thankfully, I discovered more wonderful Fair foods after that and found I had a stomach for those instead.

And my cousin? He’s a pilot now.

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Flash fiction: Cotton Eye Joe

Now and then I see interesting posts on the subreddit /r/WritingPrompts. Today I saw one that was too good to pass up: After he ruined your relationship, you finally come face to face with Cotton Eye Joe. I knew I could have fun with this one. I posted on the thread, but I’m crossposting it here, just because.


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A breakfast pizza experiment

A while back I was at Walmart and I was shopping hungry. I picked up a premade pizza crust (store brand) because I wanted to try making breakfast pizza with it. Oh I know, I could have used another brand, but 1) this one had the best use-by date, and 2) I really doubt it would make a significant difference.

Sunday night I made that pizza, and I had a few successes and mistakes that I will share now.

My first mistake was buying a ready-made pizza crust. It was not worth it. To be honest, even after cooking it well (2 minutes longer than the 8-10 minutes at 450° it called for), it was kinda doughy in texture and flavor. It never got super crispy. It was also cracking a bit as it came out of the package. I doubt a different brand would fix this; I honestly think this is simply a consequence of not doing it the smart way and using actual pizza dough and blind-baking the crust first. Lesson learned there.

The second mistake was forgetting I had a nylon knife in the drawer when I cut the first couple of slices, so I put some scratches on my good nonstick cookie sheet. I basically use that with foil all the rest of the time though, so I’m not terribly worried about it. The nylon knife did not cut as well but it did get the job done eventually without scratching the pan any further.

The rest of the pizza came together rather better. I topped the crust with a little Italian seasoning (I believe the crust was a little bit seasoned too), mozzarella, eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and cheddar.

The bacon came in the form of crumbles that you can buy in a package near the salad dressings. The mushrooms were freeze-dried; I buy the Mother Earth quart jar on Amazon, and they’re great for all kinds of things. This jar was getting to the bottom and was mostly a lot of broken pieces, so I just poured out a bunch into a bowl and rehydrated them with some hot water before sprinkling them on the pizza.

Where this experiment actually worked well was in preparing the egg. There are two schools of thought when it comes to breakfast pizza. One is that you add the egg, uncooked, to the pizza dough and just cook everything at once. This can result in a nice uniform layer of tasty egg but it can take longer to cook, and that’s kind of a problem. The other, more popular option is to partially cook the eggs beforehand in a pan, but not let them reach a fully done stage, and then add them to the pizza. One reason I don’t make breakfast pizza as often as I should is that this second method is a pain in the butt, and when you’re cooking eggs in a pan you’re not only dirtying a pan, but it’s harder to stop the eggs from reaching doneness without watching like a hawk.

My solution this time around was to use the microwave. I like to microwave scrambled eggs because it’s pretty easy and I can surprisingly get a really nice fluffy texture on them. I beat the eggs and milk together in a microwave-safe bowl and then nuke it for a bit, stir, nuke, stir, and so on, breaking up big clumps as I go along. That’s part of the secret. For my eggs I usually use about 1/8 cup of milk per egg, but this time I used a little more because I knew I wanted the eggs to take longer to cook. By doing this nuke-and-stir technique, I managed to get the eggs to a perfect pre-done consistency where they could be spooned out onto the pizza crust. This pizza by the way used two eggs, and I want to say probably 3/8 cup of milk; the round crust was probably less than a foot across, so if I had filled up the cookie sheet properly I would have used both more eggs and more milk.

Now the advantage to the ready-made crust is, obviously, you don’t have to prepare a dough. Even preparing a store-bought dough can be a pain. And maybe there are better crusts than the one I used (kind of likely, actually), so if you’re a busy parent looking to come up with a quick dinner option, maybe that’s still the way to go in a pinch.

But I will say that whether you use dough or crust, the rest of the pizza can come together very quickly. While the oven is preheating—or the dough is blind-baking after a preheat—you can nuke the eggs and get them ready. It was pretty easy for me to throw all that together, so this is a great option if you’re trying to make a good, fun dinner in a hurry.

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Wing season

Preseason football is finally here!

Boy, that snuck up on me. We’re less than two weeks from the opening of the Fair now, and that means summer is on its way out. Sheesh. This summer has raced by.

I’m at a phase right now where I’m really torn, because I’m not ready for summer to be over and I’m nowhere near a fall mood, but I’m incredibly stoked for the Fair and the return of football.

I came close to deciding to make teriyaki chicken wings for dinner tonight and watch the first preseason game, but instead I opted to wait. First of all, it was kind of a last-minute thing. Second, work has been crazy enough I thought it was unlikely I’d be able to get it all together for an evening meal. Third, wings are so much more special on opening day, and by that point the Fair will be over and I’ll be sad, so wings are a nice way to deal with that. (I know, I could do wings now and later, but I chose to wait.) As it happens I decided tonight I’d rather watch TV with my wife anyway, so I’m watching the game right now from a recording.

But the approach of wing season has me thinking ahead to fall meals a little bit, and also I’m thinking of all the stuff I’ll do at the Fair. This is a good time for food.

On a related subject, our venerable old microwave may finally be dying. My wife has reported that a couple of times it turned on when she closed the door. But that hasn’t happened since, so we’re wondering if we should replace it or stick it out. Currently we leave it unplugged when it’s not in use, which is kind of a pain but it’s a good idea for safety. This microwave has served us well. I’m a little afraid of going to a full 1100 watts because 1) I don’t know if that’ll give our wiring any grief, and 2) I’m so used to cooking with this little 700-watt model I’ll have to re-learn everything. On the plus side though, I can try to look for microwaves with cool new features and that might be worthwhile.

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Summertime slump

I very much did not plan to go on blog hiatus for two months. So what happened?

The short answer is things got busy and in down time I didn’t feel like I had a lot to say. Work-wise things ramped up unexpectedly on me with a series of semi-disasters, where I ended up playing bug whack-a-mole. The heat wave that hit at the end of June and early July did not help anything, and threw me off my game in every way. During all this time, we’ve also been dealing with a sick cat.

Hobbes is doing well now, but a couple months ago that wasn’t the case. He had been steadily losing weight for months and months, even when eating two wet food treats a day. This started when he was having “litterbox problems” (I’ll spare you the gory details) that indicated he wasn’t necessarily absorbing all the nutrients he needed, so we tried a bunch of things to help with that. He had been on prednisone for a while, so we withdrew that and nothing changed. Recently we put him back on it, which helped a smidge, but what really turned the corner was when my wife remembered how well the cats have always responded to baby food. Meat flavors, obviously.

Actually it was mostly always Hobbes and Mouse who loved baby food the best, but Mouse is no longer with us, which is one reason baby food was forgotten. My wife decided to offer some to the cats this time, and Hobbes went nuts for it—while Jack and Puff basically ignore it, in spite of Puff’s love of chicken. So we started giving Hobbes a jar of baby food, usually chicken since that’s his favorite but sometimes ham or turkey, twice a day. We call it his “snack”, and it basically falls to me to do this since I can give it to him around noon and midnight; my wife handles the wet food treat in the morning and before we eat dinner. The snack has been doing wonders, to the point where he started to gain a little weight and at his last vet visit he was back up to nearly 10 lbs. again.

So Hobbes is basically out of the woods, even though he now pesters me incessantly before snack time. Not all that long ago we were seriously worried he was on his way out. He’s 15 after all.

I haven’t done any adventurous cooking projects recently. Some of that was the heat. When it wasn’t a million degrees or raining or both, I did get a little grilling done from time to time.

On books I’m still in a dilemma about what happens next as far as release schedules, but we’re into August now and I have to start thinking ahead to November. I’ve committed myself already to do NaNoWriMo again this year, to keep the Paranormal Curio series going, and that means I need to get more ideas together for the next book. I really want the third book to have a bit of mystery flair, which involves a little more planning than I normally put in.

Also in the middle of all that’s been going on, a surprise opportunity opened up for my wife and me and we’re moving on that. It’s going to dominate our attention for some time to come I think, but hopefully will all work out for the better.

Overall I’m trying to get myself back on track on everything. This summer has been nuts.

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The next book

Since getting The Well of Moments out, I’ve been wondering what to do next in terms of book releases. I basically have three books sitting in the can right now: Gray Area, and the first two volumes of Merchantman Halflight. I’m still in a bit of a stuck spot on the third Halflight book, and I’m also trying to get a good Latin translation for something in the first book and getting conflicting replies, but the main thing is I haven’t really had any beta reader feedback on any of those yet.

One thing I badly need to do is to get better organized in terms of seeking out beta readers. Relying on friends and family really isn’t enough. To be honest, my friend circle is simply too small to handle the job. So I think I need to find out how other writers handle this.

A while back my sister did start reading Gray Area, only she had some problems with the character. I recently took another look back through that, and although I made a couple of tweaks in there, I’m not sure I really see it. I think the character may actually be fine, but the book just goes to some dark places.

This is another thing that concerns me. I’m still trying to get better established, and Gray Area could be a very, very polarizing sort of book. It digs some philosophically deep holes and strikes blood. I could see some readers having a problem with it; whereas others might be genuinely intrigued by the questions it poses and, I would hope in a good way, find something striking and memorable about it. The protagonist goes to the dark side in a big way, but for well-articulated reasons—and whether those reasons are ultimately valid, or rationalizations, is an open question for the reader.

On the other hand we have pretty upbeat space comedy. Not profound, but I’m proud of the overall story and I’ve been dying for people to enjoy it in some form or another for about 17 years now. I have enough comic scripts written to cover four or five books, and I’m currently in the midst of the third. Adapting the material to a novel format is hard, but what I’ve got so far is, I think, good.

Oh, and I basically have a cover already for Gray Area, albeit not a full wraparound, but I likely have the files in a state where that isn’t a serious problem. Getting covers for the Halflight series will be a lot harder, since I’ll want to secure a real artist again and I’ll want someone who is both affordable and available for future books. With two books ready to go in that series, that’s kind of a big hurdle.

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