That’s the word of the day: bleckh.

Today was one of Those Days. You’ve had those days too, and if you haven’t you’re either lying to yourself or you’re unnaturally charmed.

It’s been raining on and off practically the entire day. Sometimes heavily, sometimes light, and sometimes with a reprieve. But the day was gray, dark gray, from start to finish and even now, in the dark, I can still feel the weight of it.

This morning I couldn’t get out of bed. I had plenty of sleep, but during the last few hours I dreamed about being underslept. I dreamed of waking up, groggy and fuzzy, in a slightly altered version of my previous bedroom before I got married, and reluctantly getting up while in a fog.

When it was time to get up for real, I couldn’t do it—not at first. (Now is a good time to mention I don’t use an alarm. I set my own schedule, which helps on a day like today.) The gray was so thick, so dark, that it could have easily been mistaken for the first stirrings of light well before dawn. It was the same oppressive darkness you sometimes get in deepest winter, and on top of that the bedroom was chilly because a few warm days recently forced us to switch back to the A/C and we haven’t turned the furnace on again yet. The weight of the dark and cold was palpable. In the end it took a great effort to sit up in bed.

I turned the light on, and still couldn’t fully wake up. Having gotten a full night’s rest, I felt utterly unrested. It took ages to kick my mind on and spur myself to move, to pick out clothes and then to put them on, and in that time I’m pretty sure I fell asleep twice. But in the end I managed to get moving and skulk about the house for a few minutes before manning my post. The house was dreary, still asleep itself, waiting for real sunshine that wasn’t going to come.

This would have been a good day for that chicken & egg ramen I like, but I had leftovers to eat and they took priority. That was still good, though. Lunch helped perk me up a little, and by the afternoon I was working at a good pace again and flying through a project that’s been bothering me for weeks. I’m not even sure how I managed to rally; the morning was a complete wreck.

But while I revived a little, the day never did. My wife went out to dinner with the in-laws, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house; and I’m glad I didn’t, because I got more work done. After dinner, though, I discovered that my plans to bake banana bread hit a bit of a snag, so that will have to wait; it would have been a good way to close out the day. Maybe I’ll make frosting this weekend instead, only I’ll have to buy some graham crackers.

The rain is still falling. And tomorrow is supposed to be exactly the same kind of day.


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The marketing expedition

My first two books didn’t really get a big marketing push when I released them. This was for a number of reasons, although I’d eventually like to give them a good re-push at some point—maybe after getting a professional cover for One Woke Up. But for Below, I’m getting the pro cover and I think this book needs proper marketing. I’m determined to do better this time.

These are uncharted waters for me. I know very little about marketing except what not to do, which is to traumatize people with a dead kid ad in the middle of the Superbowl. (Seriously, screw you, Nationwide.) But seeing as I wasn’t going to do that anyway, that doesn’t help much.

A lot of writers are suggesting I need to get a mailing list going, and I’m thinking they’re probably right. Even if it’s not going to be used for anything right away, I should at least have a way for people to submit their email addresses so I can reach them at a future date. So that, I think, has to happen.

They’re also recommending I get my own site for this, domain and all, and frankly I’m not sure. I already have a host for the site I run for my business, but that’s a different animal—and I don’t want to mix any of that up. WordPress installations are also notoriously hack-happy, and this troubles me.

But probably the most interesting suggestion I’ve gotten so far is to invest in a blog tour. That sounds like a worthwhile idea, so I think I’m going to do it. I’ve begun researching a few companies, but I also want to take a look at some past tours and see how they worked inside and out, to get an idea of what I’m getting into.

Besides that I would love to reach out to fan sites for Roguelike games, Dungeons & Dragons, etc., because they’re the people I want to reach with this book. But how to do so effectively, that I’m not sure about.

I’ve seen many people say Facebook ads don’t work, or mostly don’t, and that’s good enough to convince me not to use them. I’m skeptical of Google. What does that leave? Amazon offers some marketing services that might be decent, so I can check them out I guess. Then what?

This is all in the early stages. But right now I feel very much like a fish out of water.

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Pumpkin bread!

pumpkinbreadYes it has an exclamation point!

I mentioned last year that my mom finally gave me her famous pumpkin bread recipe, and I made it just before Thanksgiving. This was always a staple around my house around the holidays, starting as early as October. (Which is fitting, as my mom always starts listening to Christmas music in September.) I kept meaning to ask for her permission to post this recipe, but forgot, until just the other night. She said yes, so here it goes.

Pumpkin bread!

  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 cup butter, salted
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup pumpkin puree
  • 3/4 cup (or more) chocolate chips (NOT OPTIONAL)

Bring butter to room temperature, then cream butter and sugar together with mixer. Mix in eggs, then gradually alternate between flour+spice mix and pumpkin until light and fluffy. Stir in chocolate chips. Grease and flour bread pan. Bake at 325° for 62-75 minutes. Check for doneness with inserted toothpick, which should come out clean. Remove from oven and let stand several minutes, then remove from pan to cooling rack. Makes one loaf, or six large muffins. (Fill muffin tin 3/4 full. Muffins take about 2/3 of the time.)

One large can of pumpkin puree is enough for five loaves, but decrease overall flour by about 1/2 cup if making a large batch. A small can of puree is more than enough for 2 loaves.

Last year I doubled the recipe, since I had a loaf pan but also a large silicone muffin pan, and conveniently one bag of chips is just enough for two loaves. The muffins took about 50 minutes, and the bread took 75. You can do this with a hand mixer, although a stand mixer is easier. When it’s time to fold in the chocolate chips, though, use a silicone spatula or something similar.

No, you really can’t leave the chocolate chips out. No, you can’t use fewer of them. And don’t you dare add nuts.

The original recipe said you can use 1/4 tsp. of ground cloves instead of allspice. But having grown up tasting both, just take my word for it that the allspice is better.

Once you make this, you’ll wonder why it was missing from your house all these years. It’s been a long favorite at Halloween parties, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s parties, and even on just-because occasions. Now go impress your family (or even just yourself). It freezes well, too, so you can make a big batch and always have more to bring out when you’re entertaining—or TV binging, or enjoying the rest between family gatherings, or live-blogging a parade.

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Ultimate chicken & egg ramen

Having perfected, I think, my approach to comfort ramen, I will share it now as a complete recipe. This soup is a miracle worker, and so easy and quick to make that you can (probably) even do it at work.

Ultimate chicken & egg ramen

  • 1 package Maruchan ramen noodles, any flavor
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 egg
  • Milk, small amount (about 1/8 cup)
  • 2 tsp. Herb-Ox chicken bouillon (or equivalent of your preferred brand, for 2 cups liquid)
  • 1 tsp. dried minced garlic (jarred will work too, but use less if you chop it fresh)
  • Celery, chopped (fresh or dehydrated)
  • Mushrooms, sliced (canned, jarred, or dehydrated)
  • 2 tbsp. butter

Bring water to boil. If using dehydrated celery instead of fresh, add now; otherwise add it with the other ingredients later. Open ramen package and remove flavor packet (save it for another recipe); break up noodles slightly, but not too much. In a microwave-safe bowl, beat egg with a splash of milk. Microwave for 30-60 seconds, stir, and repeat until egg is just cooked—but do not overcook—then break egg into small chunks. Once water boils, add noodles, bouillon, garlic, and mushrooms. Stir, and cook for 3 minutes as per ramen package directions. Pour into a bowl, and push butter down into the middle until submerged. Add scrambled egg and stir a little to mix it in.

This meal will really warm you up. The soup comes out piping hot and stays that way for a good long while. You can of course use any brand of noodles you like; I specified Maruchan because that’s what I buy, so the recipe is calibrated to that. I use the celery for crunch, dehydrated because I never keep fresh celery on hand. Mushrooms add body and flavor, and since I use dehydrated mushrooms I can add a handful of them quickly. (You can add the mushrooms early if you want, too.) Butter adds considerable flavor and the fat makes it more satisfying; remember, butter has healthy fats! The egg, which should come out fluffy from the microwave, is sublime. And when all the noodles are gone, an incredibly flavorful broth is left.

I can throw this together in just a few minutes, which makes it perfect for the occasional lunch. If you don’t work from home yourself, and odds are you don’t, you can pre-scramble the egg the night before and let it chill in the fridge, throw your seasoning and veggies and mushrooms into a zip snack bag, put the chilled egg and butter in a different zip bag, and then just bring along your ramen package and favorite large microwave-safe soup mug (and a fork of course) for a little cooking kit. It should cook up in no time with the help of your break room microwave.

Or, you can do one better and just cook it quickly in the morning, and throw the whole batch into a pre-warmed Thermos. (It can stay with you at your desk, and Todd the lunch thief will never get it. When I become a supervillain, stealing lunches will carry the death penalty.) I know, nobody has time in the mornings, but this is worth it and won’t take you very long, especially once you’ve made it a few times. When winter comes, when the dreaded Tuesday rears its head, and you’re facing those nasty cold days of heavy snow—or worse, rain—you’ll thank me. This easy-to-assemble soup can make your day better.

And college students, this will seriously up your ramen game. Either order the dehydrated veggies and mushrooms on Amazon, or ask you-know-who send you some in the next care package. Be sure to keep a small amount of butter, milk, and eggs on hand. Bonus: you can use the leftover seasoning packet to spice up some other dorm meal.

If you end up making this, or any variations thereon, drop me a note. I’d love to hear what you think of this recipe, or any other takes on it you might try. More spices, more veggies, maybe a little grated Parmesan; the sky’s the limit.

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Thinking of fall

This morphed into about 2/3 cooking blog so fast, I barely even noticed. But be that as it may, I have cooking and a number of other things on my mind tonight. Fall is in full swing now, and I’m thinking ahead.

High on my to-do list is buying a new Christmas tree. Mine is nine years old, and it’s been shedding needles at an exponentially higher rate every year. My wife has declared it unfit, so I need to replace it. The old tree was a Douglas fir from BJ’s, and the best candidate right now is also a BJ’s tree, although this one is a Colorado spruce. I hope it looks good. I’d be very happy with a Balsam Hill tree but I’m not rich, hinged trees I think won’t work at all in my living room, and I hate buying prelit. The options are limited.

I want to reread John Dies at the End. Gads I love that book.

Speaking of books, I’m determined to finally get more of those out. I have an artist booked for Below, and it looks like we’ll probably get to a Skype session tomorrow to go over some sketches. For Gray Area I have a homemade cover, but beta reader feedback is telling me it needs a lot of work still; specifically, the protagonist needs his motivations spelled out better, he needs to be more likeable, and come off less sociopathic. (All fair critiques, I think. I’m looking forward to the detailed notes so I can fix it.) And having gone through the artist audition process, I’m way less scared than I once was about the prospect of doing covers for the Halflight series.

Last year I baked pumpkin bread for the first time, using my mom’s recipe. It was a big deal for me, and I was thrilled that it came out perfectly. I’ve been hounding her for years, but not persistently enough, for her recipes for banana bread and buttercream frosting; now I’ve gotten serious about it and she’s got a text message always staring at her to remind her to send those along. I’m not crazy enough to try making Christmas cookies this year—because I’m the only one who would eat them—but I’m definitely making banana bread right away. And I’m still going to make frosting, because putting that between a couple of Graham crackers is one of the best desserts ever.

My ramen experiments have continued. I bought some Herb-Ox chicken bouillon (I chose it because it came in a jar instead of cubes), and holy crap does that make a difference; it puts the original flavor packet not just to shame, but to dirty, dirty shame. Yes I know bouillon is nowhere near as good as homemade broth, but screw it. I tried this with my current recipe, still leaving in the minced garlic and still adding a little bit of butter at the end, and it’s fantastic. On one try I added a microwave-scrambled egg into the soup at the end, and the next time I cut up some frozen pre-cooked chicken strips. Both were delicious, although if pressed I think I’d give the edge to the egg. I like that this is a super hot, super flavorful lunch for cold days and it doesn’t take long at all to make.

Other things are coming up for me too, so the above is really only part of what I’m thinking about going forward into fall. But those ones are the most fun; almost as much fun as seeing Bill Belichick butthurt this past Sunday. And let’s face it; everyone is trying not to think about the election, for one reason or another. Win or lose, I might take up drinking.

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Below: the cover begins

Recently I made a bold decision for my next book, Below: I decided to commission a professional cover. I don’t take this lightly, but the book really demands professional artwork, and I’m hoping that between that and some aggressive marketing (not like spam aggressive, because screw that) this book will really go places.

Searching for an artist is a daunting process. I asked for help online, and checked out a few recommended artists’ sites, only to discover that 1) most recommendations are for artists who do stock compositing for YA-type covers (e.g., a person against a backdrop, highly saturated colors) and 2) many of the recommended artists who did have the chops for it were either beyond my price range or way too busy. And I had to go check out each one individually, and there weren’t that many to look at.

Enter DeviantArt. I’ve been familiar with the site for a long time, and someone suggested I should post a job ad there. So the other night, I did just that. I wrote up a post going into great detail what I wanted, what sort of things I wanted to know about the price and process, and what my goals were for a time frame and cost.

The response was really quite amazing. Within eight hours I was inundated with replies, and within a day I had quite a lot to look through. Of course I still had to look at everyone’s portfolios and make judgement calls as to what their area of expertise was and how well they could fit my target style, but that wasn’t so bad—and I kept notes so I can contact some of them for future projects. I saw quite a few artists I thought would be awesome to keep in mind for later.

Armed with all that information, I’ve finally selected my first artist. What put it over the top was that the artist gave me a breakdown of the process, what she expects in payment and when, and that she wants to be very collaborative. Also, she mentioned having a great affinity for material very similar to the book, so I feel she’ll understand a good bit of where I want to go with it. And of course I think she has what it takes to produce something amazing.

I’m doing the typography myself. I made it optional in my job listing, because I feel I can handle it on my own.

When the cover is ready, you’ll see it here. I’ve started the process going, first payment made, and now comes the part where the artist and I work out concept sketches. It’s super exciting.

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Programmers who will pay in the new order

I have some grievances against some of my kind and I’m going to air them now.

If you’re a Web developer, test your site without cookies from time to time, especially if you’re a news site or some such that most people are never going to login on. I recently discovered that E! Online has joined the ignoble ranks of sites that refresh themselves every few seconds if you don’t have cookies enabled. Why a site should refresh if it can’t find any cookies is a complete mystery to me, and by complete mystery I mean I don’t want to know the answer because the question is so bafflingly stupid that anyone who knowingly makes their site do this should be hanged. Unless they’re doing it on orders from a clueless boss, and then the boss should be hanged. All after due process, of course.

Then we have the Weather Channel. I’ve mentioned them recently, how their site has been broken nine ways from Sunday. They made a lot of fixes, but the one thing they never fixed was that you need cookies to view the site. Not even just session cookies, which satisfy most picky sites, but full cookies, because they make use of localStorage and don’t bother to check if it’s unavailable. This is what we professionals call top-shelf stupid, almost unforgivably so, although it’s still marginally less bad than the refresh thing.

But by far the thing that irks me the most is a software habit. Some pieces of software are in the habit these days of updating themselves, often on their own schedule that can interfere with whatever you’re doing. That’s often bad enough, but it gets worse. Most of the programs that do this are constantly re-inserting themselves into the Start menu. Why is this bad? Because some of us like to keep our start menu organized so it’s not just one giant list of programs where you can’t find anything. Every time one of these programs updates, my start menu is re-cluttered with an entry in the main section when it already has one somewhere else. At the very very least, these guys could keep track of where you told them to put their shortcuts the first time so they don’t do it again. How hard is that? (Hint: It’s not.)

And I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this one, but a number of sites like to use custom fonts. Unfortunately those fonts, or the subsets they present to their users, don’t tend to include a non-breaking space character, so when it turns up it becomes a zero-width space. This turns out to be a problem because these sites also seem to be using a content platform that inserts non-breaking spaces all over the place between words instead of true spaces, which is a special kind of stupid when it comes to text content anyway. On sites like that, I’ll be reading an article and suddenly two words are abutted together with no explanation. When I finally found the explanation I was dumbfounded by how preventable it was, because all you need to do is either include the right character in the font, or better still replace the non-breaking spaces that shouldn’t be there anyway with regular ones.

I’ve perpetrated many a gaffe myself; I don’t hold myself blameless. But good gads, these particular issues are so ridiculously widespread there ought to be roaming squads of floggers who go after these bozos and give them a good lash once in a while until they straighten up and fly right. Issues like this should be so blindingly obvious that programmers everywhere should have an almost religious aversion to them. We have a generation of programmers taught to believe goto is evil (it’s not, just dangerous if mishandled), but nobody bothered to tell them not to refresh the page if the user is a cookiephobe? Madness. Give me spaghetti code instead of rank stupidity any day.

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