Monday, September 24, 2012

Boobs and brownies

Last night, I shoved a bag of coffee beans into my chocolate cabinet and it didn't go in all the way. It's a tall, narrow cabinet with deep shelves and I couldn't see what was blocking my beans. I pulled a chair over and rooted around in the cabinet to find two bars of bittersweet Scharffen Berger chocolate hidden behind a stack of Lindt. After much celebrating, I made brownies. Not just any brownies, mind you, but the darkest, chewiest, deadliest brownies ever. EVER. To put them totally over the top, I whisked up egg whites, sugar, vanilla, and coconut for a crisp/chewy macaroon crust which can be omitted if you're not a coconut lover or feel like being a purist and going all chocolate instead.

Unexpected chocolate is awesome. Unexpected writing is awesome too. I had both over the weekend. An idea I've played with for the last two years came dancing out of my head with jazz hands and I filled page after page with pretty new words. It's on like Donkey Kong now and I couldn't stop it if I tried. No, you can't read my WIP. But you can read the first (rough) draft of my query for THE SALINE SOLUTION, YA contemporary.

Ethel's family calls her E as in Ethylene Glycol--her favorite part of Forensic Night at the Klyczek home. Her boyfriend calls her E as in ever since they were nine years old. And her friends call her E as in "wishes she was a 34E instead of a 34A".

Standing behind Boobs McGee and her busty court at the Fairest of the Fair pageant, E hits the breaking point. That night, E devises The Saline Solution. Five months working the drive-thru window at the CDC (Clark's Delicious Chicken), saving gas money by taking the school bus (shudder), and a little help from her college fund should be enough for a new set of twins by senior prom. The Saline Solution goes public. Car washes and sponsorships put E in the spotlight at White County High and suddenly, she's on a whole new rung of the popularity ladder.  

The price of her new figure keeps climbing as The Saline Solution springs a leak. Her boyfriend's had enough of the attention E's boobs (or lack of) are getting and her best friend's fed up with the social circus around her. Even her parents and teachers are overreacting about the whole thing. A lockdown on the college fund, a ban on fundraising at the school, and hostile friends are pushing E over the edge. 

Prom is just three weeks after her 18th birthday and all eyes will be on E's Cs--if she doesn't give up on The Saline Solution.

Wishing you bars of unexpected chocolate and pages of unexpected writing. If you need inspiration, here's the recipe for my Scharffen Berger brownies.


6oz bittersweet chocolate (66-72% cacao, preferably Scharffen Berger or Valrhona)
7T unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1t vanilla extract
pinch of salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour

Finely chop chocolate and melt in a double boiler (or cheat and use the microwave like I often do) with butter and sugar. Add vanilla and salt and stir in eggs, one at a time. Stir in flour and beat until the batter is smooth and glossy and comes away from the sides of the bowl, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape batter into parchment lined 8x8 pan and spread evenly.

For macaroon crust;
2 egg whites
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1t vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients in a heatproof bowl and heat in double boiler (or microwave), stirring frequently, until very hot to the touch and egg whites have thickened slightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Use fingers or a fork to drop over the brownie batter in the pan.

Bake brownies (with or without coconut) at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until puffed at the edges and coconut is golden brown. Center should still be soft but not gooey. Let cool completely in the pan on a rack or in the refrigerator.

Served at room temperature, these brownies are meltingly smooth and intensely chocolate. Served cold (the way I like them) they're dense and fudgy and perfectly chewy. You win either way.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The French toast is a lie

I'm querying.  It's the suckiest suck that ever sucked but I have to suck it.  I know a lot of you out there are on that roller coaster with me and totally get the suckiness of it all.  You read, re-read, re-re-read your query before you send it out and almost flatline when you hit send.  For days you're obsessing over your inbox, damning Shutterfly and Redbox for popping up as new mail and making you think you've got a response.  The rejections are gut punches, the requests feel like bungee jumping, and the waiting is pure and perfect hell.  The waiting is the hardest part.

You read "How I Got My Agent" posts and it sounds all butterflies and sprinkles, rainbows and unicorns, pink icing and David Archuletta.  You ache for that high so bad you can taste it.  Someone on Twitter gushes about their book birthday and you cheer for them, even happydance, but inwardly you die a little.  You practice your famous author spiel, gushing about the lovelies who supported you on your journey and describing the moment the characters started compelling you to write their story.  Okay, so I might be the only one who talks to myself, but we do what we have to in order to stay sane.  Or some semblance of sane.  Whatever--you know what I mean.

If we're on the same roller coaster (bar in your lap, heart in your throat), maybe you can relate to some of my concerns.

I'm dying to get in the head of an agent with my manuscript.  Every day that passes, my blood pressure rises.  Did she find something in the slushpile she's in love with and throw mine aside indefinitely while she focuses on the new one?  Is she in love with mine and finishing up some other requests before she makes her final decision?  Am I on a "to be rejected" list and she's waiting for some free time to send the sorry-but email?

And this one keeps me up at night; two agents have announced new clients since requesting my full manuscript.  Does that mean a rejection is inevitable?  Even if she likes mine, it has to hurt my chances of getting picked up if she just signed someone else.  Do agents take on several new clients at once?  It'd really blow to lose a race by a fraction of a second.  No matter how close you are to the winner, you still lose.  If the agent is only signing one new client and loves this other manuscript a wee bit more than mine, I'm screwed.  She'd have to lurve (not just merely love) mine so desperately that she'd be willing to make an exception.  Ugh.  More gut punching.  I'm going to stay optimistic and wait for a response.  It's not like I have much of a choice.

Waiting bites the big one.  When I'm not working on my other projects, I come right back to the what-if game with my submitted manuscript.  So I enter pitch contests, writing contests, whatever I can find.  Yes, I have a crazy amount of requested submissions out there, but I want MOAR confirmation.  MOAR requests, MOAR positive feedback, MOAR author buzz.  I'll be on on Xanax and horse tranquilizers before this is over, I guarantee it.

Since I know you're only here for the food, let's get to it.  I found this recipe on Pinterest and made it for Sunday's breakfast.  The whole time I was putting it together I was thinking how familiar it seemed.  I must have been ridiculously tired Saturday night because I should've recognized it right away.  The kids weren't impressed.  No big surprise there--they were never impressed with its true identity either.  As soon as I put a piece on my plate, I knew what it was.  Maybe it was the lack of rum and currants that threw me off.  With the right ingredients, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a generous drizzle of brown sugar and bourbon sauce, it would've been perfect.  It's not French toast, my friends.  It's bread pudding.  Now you can certainly lie to yourself and call it breakfast (I won't rat you out) but you really should make this.

Overnight French Toast
(aka Bread Pudding)

1 large loaf of day-old bread (challah, farm bread, brioche, etc.)
8 eggs
2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
2T vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1t cinnamon
1/2 cup cold butter, cut in small pieces.

Tear or cut bread into 1" pieces and place in a 9x13 pan (lined with parchment or well buttered).  In a medium bowl, whisk eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla until well blended.  Pour egg mixture evenly over bread in pan.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Mix flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a medium bowl and cut in butter with a pastry blender, a fork, or two knives until crumbly.  Sprinkle over French toast.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes (soft and moist) to an hour (firm and drier).  Serve hot with butter and maple syrup, if desired.

For bread pudding, reduce vanilla to 1T, add 1/4 cup dark rum and 1t cinnamon to egg mixture, and sprinkle French toast with a generous handful of dried currants or raisins before chilling.  Omit cinnamon crumb mixture.  Serve with ice cream and bourbon sauce:

8T unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup bourbon or other whiskey
2T water
1/4 t nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 egg

Melt butter in saucepan.  Stir in sugar, liquor, water, nutmeg, and salt.  Cook, stirring until sugar is dissolved and mixture is blended.  Remove from heat and whisk in egg until frothy.  Set the sauce back on the stove and stir gently over medium heat until thickened, about one minute.  Can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to three days.  Warm over low heat, adding warm water to thin, if necessary.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How having an agent can clear you of kidnapping charges

Querying is the American Idol audition of the publishing world.  You've got one page (one, ONE, o-n-e, 1) to convince Monsieur or Madame Agent of several things; A-You have a great idea, B-Your idea is marketable, C-You're worth the investment.  There's probably more but I'm still relatively new at this.  A bad audition can get a good manuscript rejected and a fabulous audition can get something as lame as the phone book a submission request.  Pick a good song, sing it well, and hope Randy Jackson's got rum in that Coke.

It's a small step toward publication and feels like one of the scariest.  At this early stage, unless you're lucky enough to be blood-related to the senior editor of a major publishing house, you're probably not going to get any attention from publishers.  Agents are the gatekeepers--in a non-Ghostbusters kind of way.  Having writer friends has advantages (yay, cheer squad!) and its disadvantages (boo, humility reminders!) but it's not the same as having an agent who loves you/your work enough to tattoo your name/title in fancy script on his/her forehead.  It's no guarantee you'll see your book in print someday, but (slush pile or Newberry) your agent's right there with you.

Let's say I was arrested outside Adam Lambert's house--hypothetically, of course.  (Please note; this blog post is pure fiction and is in no way a confession or admission of guilt; therefore, it's inadmissible in a court of law.)  I could go up against the legal system all by myself and try to convince them I'm no danger to Mr. Lambert or society in general, but they are knowledgeable in these matters and won't buy my story without an advocate.  I need someone to represent me and use their experience and connections to win them over.  Did I have zebra print duct tape, take-out sushi, and candles?  Yes, but my attorney will have a much better shot than I would at making the court believe I was having a picnic, concerned about a possible power outage, and uh, making duct tape wallets for charity.  You want the judge to buy your story?  Hire a good lawyer.  You want a publisher to buy your story?  Land a good agent.  You want a dinner date with Adam Lambert?  Don't use duct tape; the jury sees right through the wallet-making defense (hypothetically, of course).

While we're on the subject of having someone to go to bat for you, let's chat about publishers.  I have no absolutely no qualification or experience in this area but I have writer friends who have been kind enough to let me live vicariously through them.  Getting in bed with a major publisher without an agent--not likely.  Getting in bed with a zillion readers without a major publisher--also not likely.  There's a whole lot of self publishing going on out there.  No rejection letters, no waiting.  It's not necessarily the easy route, mind you.  If all you do is upload your MS to Amazon and wait for readers to find you, I wish you luck.  Hiring an editor and a formatter and promoting the heck out of your book will get you much better results.  Now, while I'm going to promote myself and my books like a crazy person, I would very much like to have a publisher with me on that journey.  I want my cover blown up and plastered on my publisher's booth at book conferences.  I want my books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million.  I want to see them in Scholastic book orders and on book fair tables.  I want readers to be able to pick them up as an impulse buy while they're shopping at Wal-Mart.  I'm not going to get that kind of accessibility by self publishing.  Book tours, signings, appearances, and the like are all necessary, but accessibility is HUGE.  I'm not there yet, so don't quote me on any of this.  It's just personal observation.

As I write this, my manuscript is being considered by a surprising number of agents (including my first choice Super Agent).  Even more surprising, there are some big name agents on that list.  I was contacted by one of those agents following a pitch contest and I'm one of five finalists in a kissing scene contest.  One agent already finished looking over my manuscript said she loved it and wants me to make a few changes and send it back.  I never imagined I'd get this kind of response when I started sending queries and I'm in a mild state of shock.  It's getting closer!  Hopefully I'll be posting my How I Got My Agent story soon.

What's your story?  Tell me about your agent, your publisher, your kidnapping charges, whatever.  I'd love to hear it!