August 24, 2014

What to Eat When It's Hot and Humid

I've been enjoying this relatively cool summer but now we're in the middle of a hot and humid spell so I've pulled out my stand-by meals: ceviche and gazpacho. No ovens need apply, no burners necessary - all that's required is a chopping block and a fridge.
Here you go. Keep cool!

8 servings
1 lb. firm fish like tilapia, salmon, cod or other very fresh fish, cut into ½” dice (scallops and shrimp are also good in this - leave the scallops raw but cook the shrimp and add at the last minute)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced, or hot sauce to taste
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ cup diced red onion
1 tbsp minced cilantro
½ tsp salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 avocado, cut into ¾” dice, optional
1 ripe tomato, cut into ¾” dice, optional

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl; marinate 1 hour in refrigerator.

1/4 of day-old baguette, crusts removed, coarsely chopped
2 pounds vine-ripe medium tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 small kirby cucumbers, coarsely chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups tomato juice or water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1/2 lemon, juiced

Soak the bread in 1 cup of water for 5 minutes, and then squeeze out the excess water. Place the bread in a blender or food processor; add the tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, onion, and garlic. Puree the ingredients until almost smooth, leaving a little texture. Pour the vegetable mixture into a large bowl; stir in the tomato juice, sugar, paprika, salt, pepper, vinegar, oil, parsley, and lemon juice until well combined. Refrigerate the soup for at least 2 hours until very well chilled; the flavors will develop as it sits.
Season the gazpacho again with salt and pepper before serving.


August 23, 2014

Writing Tip: Improve Your Writing With a Critique Group

Critique groups are one of the best ways of improving your writing. As a novelist I can, and do, edit my own manuscript. Of course. That's part of the process. But that only works to a point. I've lived with this novel-in-progress and these words for a long time and even if I step away for a week or two I'm unable to distance myself in the same way that fresh eyes and a fresh perspective would. I assume things are on the page because they were in my head when I wrote those words, but not all of that makes its way into the story. 
That's where your readers come in. 
If you have friends who read your work in progress, know that they will tell you it's wonderful, even if they swear to be honest. And that's great to hear but it won't help your writing career.
Lesson one: friends will mostly NOT BE honest. They won't want to hurt your feelings and they won't want to presume to tell you how to write. 
Honest, informed feedback is what you need and the best way to get that is through a critique group. They're not all that easy to find but when you find a good one DON'T LET IT GO!
Last year at the Chicago Writers Conference I was on a panel of authors talking about the writing process and the discussion came around to critique groups. I espoused the benefits of being in one, and bemoaned the fact that the group I'd been in had fallen apart, and that I'd been unable to find a new one. After the panel a man came up to me and invited me to join his group. And right behind him were two women who said they were both writing novels and wanted to start a group, and would I join them. 
Well, I joined both! I've been with them for nearly a year now and they are very different and both are fabulous! And my book is that much better because of their feedback.
How do you find a critique group? Network; ask your writer friends, post something on your Facebook or Twitter page, go to writing conferences and talk to people (The Chicago Writers Conference is coming up in October) or look online - if you can't find an in-person group, find a virtual one. 
Critiquing is an art, on the receiving end and on the giving end, so next time I'll post some tips for how to do it in a way that's beneficial to all involved.
Meanwhile, here's a quick little guide:

August 19, 2014

Movie Review: The Hundred Foot Journey ***

The Hundred Foot Journey is a pleasant journey, just not a great one. But I think I liked this film more than I expected to.
With Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey as producers it's almost compulsory that we not only feel good but also that we learn some important life lessons. And the messages are here, if a touch in-your-face. I'm a big fan of subtlety in film (and in books and in life, in fact); of giving your audience some credit for intelligence, and there's none of that here but it's a mostly pleasant two hours.
Parts of the story are sweet, parts are funny, parts are boring, parts are heart-warming. There's a section in the middle where I was checking my watch (maybe I should change my rating system to watches instead of stars), and if that middle part had ended up on the cutting room floor it would have been a much stronger film. That said, the ending brought me back to the emotional core of the story so I left with a good feeling.
The story is a bit too pat and predictable, and the story arcs are too obvious but the performances are good and it's beautifully photographed.
Three stars out of five for The Hundred Foot Journey.

August 16, 2014

Writing Tip: Helpful Editing Tricks

Most of the Stuff You Need to Know to Edit Your Manuscript

By Bill Ferris

Look, I don’t want to imply there’s anything wrong with your book. I’m just saying that if your first draft was a masterpiece, your second draft will be like Wuthering Heights and The Brothers Karamazov glued together. Here’s how you can turn your hunk of clay of a first draft into the Mona Lisa.
  • Buy a blue pencil. You’ll need it to write down the snacks you’ll wanna buy for your next editing session.
  • Print two hard copies of the manuscript. The first is so you can make your edits on paper like God intended. The second is for years later when the Smithsonian comes asking if you have any memorabilia they could display.
  • Buy books on editing. This article makes them all obsolete, of course, but they’ll look great on your bookshelf. “Ooh, this writer apparently knows a thing or two about editing!” they’ll say. “Look at all those books!”
If you ask an editor if they’re a scammer, legally they have to tell you or it’s edtrapment.
  • Trim the fat. Nobody wants to read a flabby manuscript. Take out unnecessary words, as well as all references to fried foods and soda.
  • Murder your darlings. One of the most useful bits of writing advice, it’s a figure of speech that means that in your novel, you must kill a beloved pet, love interest, or small child. It’s hard, but I didn’t make the rules.
  • While you’re at it, let some of your minor characters know you might bump off a few of them, too, if they don’t start adding more to the story. Do this out loud.

August 4, 2014

Movie Review: Get On Up **

The biopic of James Brown is, if you can imagine it, kind of boring. Other than the wild wigs and temper tantrums it's just a bunch of vignettes from different periods in his life which are supposed to show us who he was but ultimately the script doesn't dig very deeply, just preaches at us about what a genius he was, and what an asshole, all at the same time. It should be an emotionally gripping story. Unfortunately it's not.
The story moves back and forth in time in a confusing and annoying way, sometimes with a title and date across the screen, other times with his hairstyle being the only clue to where we are in the film.
Apparently he was a wife beater but that comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. And were those kids all his and when did that happen? It's possible I fell asleep.
Chadwick Boseman is purely awful in the part, his ever-present grin (except when he's abusing people or firing his band) passing for emotion. He's on the edge of the character, doesn't seem all that interested so why should I be? Or maybe he's trying too hard. Either way, it didn't work for me.
Dan Ackroyd, as his manager or financial guy or whoever the hell he is (I didn't care) plays the role as if he's just come out of Acting 101, and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are wasted here.
There's a device that's used occasionally throughout the film where the character looks at, or talks to, the camera, which is annoying and kind of shtick-y, for no purpose.
Awful. I didn't leave but I can't say why not.
Two stars out of five for Get On Up.

August 2, 2014

Recipe: Potato, Onion, Mushroom Fritatta

This is for you, Jan Lewis, who asked me to post the recipe for my fritatta.
In a 9" or 10" pan, heat olive oil (or bacon fat, or whatever your favorite fat is), add  a chopped onion, three small (or one large) chopped potatoes (all about 1/2" dice) and about a tablespoon of minced garlic. Add salt and pepper and sauté over medium-high heat until the potatoes are lightly browned on the outside and tender in the middle.
Add a handful of chopped mushrooms (or any other veggies in your fridge) and sauté a couple minutes more.
Meanwhile, beat six eggs with about 1/4 cup of cream, add 1/4 cup of shredded cheese (whatever kind you like), and add any herbs and spices you like. I added a pinch of herbs de Provence, a bit of nutmeg and a little more s&p. Put the pan in a 375 oven and bake for about 20-25 minutes. Then put it under the broiler until it's lightly browned. Watch it closely - it'll only take 3-4 minutes.
Then chow down.
Quick, easy and yummy. Good reheated or at room temp.