The Science Behind “Knowing” the Right Direction For Your Story

From Hugh Howey

It’s spooky to admit that the conscious portion of our brain isn’t aware of what’s happening elsewhere in our noggins, but some really freaky experiments back this up. This is why, when the writing is going well, it feels more like reading or discovery than it does writing or creation. It feels as though the story could go no other way than the way we’re writing it. Like it existed before us.

Make No Excuses — Get the Most From Your Out of Excuses Retreat

This list is advice for the lucky folks attending The Out of Excuses Writing Retreat II: The Retreatening, and much of the advice is going to be specific for this retreat, though probably applicable to the Writing the Other Workshop and Retreat, lead by WX member Mary Robinette Kowal. Some of it you can use for any retreat. While the retreat is quite a few months out, it’s good to start thinking and planning ahead of time.

1. Know what you want outside of the class time. Do you want to make writing friends? Build a critique group for after you leave? Run your outline past some good folks? Get writing time in? Knowing what you want will keep you from regretting a, b, or c. At some point you will have to choose between doing awesome thing A and awesome thing B. Knowing your overall goals can help you make that decision. It’s okay to change your priorities midway, but be conscientious about it.

2. Someone — bring an icebreaker game that can be played among a large group. If you’re a little adventurous, Cards Against Humanity is often a hit, but Mafia or Werewolf is really good for a large crowd. (And you can spin some great stories within those games.) You’re all going to be introduced online before you get there, but face to face meetings can be awkward for some folks. Drag them in.

3. Some of you will be arriving the night before the retreat starts. Get together with your fellow attendees! Grab some dinner, and ask all the awkward icebreaker writer questions. What do you write? How will you know you’ve “made it”? Favorite authors? Book you’re most waiting for this year?

4. Not everyone is a note taker. Those of you who are? Share your knowledge! Set up a group Drop Box/Google Drive folder where everyone can upload their notes for the group. Us non-note takers really appreciate it when we go to try to explain a concept we learned, but can’t remember something specific. And each note taker finds different nuggets of gold that meant more to them than other listeners at the time, but useful for everyone.

5. Sleep is for when you get home, but know when you need to take some downtime to recharge. Your brain is going to be going at 160%. It’s okay to shut off for a bit. It’s better to be on 100% part of the time than 50% all of the time.

6. Don’t be afraid to speak up in class or out of it. You are in a well-lead, safe environment. Everyone is excited to be there. Everyone is excited to meet everyone; that means you.

7. It’s okay to turn your cell phone off. You don’t have to, but it’s fun to focus entirely on the retreat. Tell your loved ones you’ll talk to them once a day, then lose yourself in the offline experience.

8. Don’t compare yourself to the other attendees. You’re going to do this anyway, but recognize that it’s pointless. Everyone is on a different path in their career, and it’s not a competition.

9. Get to know your Cousin Emily. Your Cousin Emily will most probably not be named Cousin Emily, but they are a person that the WX folks have pulled in to help with the mundane aspects of the retreat: lunch, clean up, who knows what. No matter who your Cousin Emily is, they are awesome. And they are a writer, too. Because your Cousin Emily is awesome, and you want to spend time with them while they’re not running around cleaning up your mess, make sure you clean up after yourself. Volunteer to take the garbage out. You’re in someone’s home. Remember this.

10. If there’s a closing activity, schedule your trip so that you can stick around for it. And save some energy for it. Just do it.

Thanks to Mike Thayer, Jason Gruber, and Kristen Mercer, fellow WXR 2013 attendees, for helping me compile this list.

Emotional Warfare

I avoid negative emotion like the plague.

It finds me on its own, often enough, so I rarely see the point in seeking it out or even acknowledging its presence.

But there’s a problem with this. (Other than that of the psychological variety.) I love stories. I can handle a sad story only because I trust there will be some happiness at the end. It doesn’t have to be all happiness, but a happiness. I trust there will be a Happily After All. I love stories so much I want to create my own.

I trip along blithely at the beginning of penning a story. Characters are introduced. There is bantering. Hints of unrest. But when I get to the point of really digging into the meat of emotion, I dry up. My internal Negative Emotion Early Alarm System engages in automatic evasive manuevers. This system has been tested and refined for twenty years and is extremely good at what it does. If I could patent it, I’d make millions.

Defenses are well and good, but they are limiting my abilities. I don’t like limits. Ask my mother. But I’m not sure how to get around this one. Maybe now that I know it is there, that will be enough to push me over the line.

In the meantime, if anyone develops an Emotional Wall Bazooka and needs test subjects, give me a call.

Ninja-ing out of Depression

Cross post from tumblr — posted December 23, 2013

I have managed to be personally unproductive today.

I was quite professionally productive (got two huge things done today), but I feel as if somehow my brain has switched into super mode where everything I accomplish that is not Costa Rica focused somehow isn’t real, like it’s a dream. A nice, productive dream, but one that has no input on my feelings of worth as a human being.

Which is just silly.

I actually have been a little productive. I made coffee. (Twice!) I made soup. (From a can.) I chased the little girl for the second, third and fourth times in less than twenty four hours. (I seriously do not learn from repeated mistakes.) I left the house. (Twice! Once for food, and then back out thirty minutes later for last minute Christmas shopping.) I found the camera I was worried I had lost! (Though really that was just proof of my complete inability to find things in plain sight. It was on the floor on the far side of my bed. Not under my bed, just on the other side of it. I actually called the truck rental place to see if I’d somehow left it in the truck because the last time I’d seen it was Tuesday, and Tuesday was the day we rented the truck, even though I knew I hadn’t taken the camera into the truck, I had meant to take it, and was upset when I found I had left it in the car instead. But my brain likes to play tricks on me, so I worried I had taken it into the truck, but just thought I hadn’t, and then left it.) I managed to not buy anything (for me) in Barnes & Noble.

Even though I’ve been super productive this week (so crazy productive I feel like this whole moving thing is possibly being managed by super helper gnomes somewhere, because I never manage anything this smoothly, and I’m trying not to stress about all the things that are going to go wrong last minute BECAUSE THIS IS TOO EASY), I haven’t finished all the things I wanted to finish. Mainly, I haven’t organized the kitchen or cleaned out the car yet.

Granted, the kitchen often terrifies me. I am not the cleanest person. I will cook once a month, and then get so exhausted of the idea of cleaning up afterward that things sit in the sink for weeks. But I got past that stage already. I put everything gross and icky to soak in the sink, and ran them through the wash last night. So now all that remains is the organizing. And really, all I need is the five things I need to put in a box to take tomorrow to Kentucky for storage. But for some reason today, that just seems completely overwhelming. Even as I type this, I realize how ridiculous I’m being. All I need to do is grab a box, throw the five things (cast iron frying pan, cast iron dutch over, immersion blender, pasta maker and crazy bar spoon for layering drinks) in a box and I’d feel tons better.

Ugh. I’ve convinced myself to do this.

Good thing. The dutch oven needed cleaning and time to dry.

Sometimes, like tonight, all it takes to get me out of my funk is a good personal pep talk, or better yet, a good personal guilt trip. I haven’t been taking my Vitamin D super regularly, and I’ve had a lot of people time. Those two combined can definitely put me out of place.

But sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much I guilt myself, how easy a task it is that I’m avoiding, I just can’t make myself. And that, my friends, is depression. The less able I am to do the simple thing, the simpler the thing is, the guiltier I feel, the less of a human being I feel, and the harder existence becomes. I lay in bed, thinking to myself, I should wash clothes so I have clean underwear. I should pick up a little bit so that there’s actually a clear path on the floor. I should get a glass of water. And I just lay there.

I haven’t been in that place in a while, and fear of it offers an extra oomph to the personal guilt trips. Anytime I find myself laying in bed, thinking of the simple things I should do, but just can’t muster up the will for, I worry that I’m going to go to that place again. And sooner or later, I’ll get up and do one thing, just to prove to myself I can.

That one thing is the most important thing.

If I can do one thing, I can generally do two things. And then I’ve cleaned an entire room. But really, it’s the one thing.

Tonight, I’ve done the one thing that proves to myself that I’m not in that dark place, one sneaky ninja-escape from the slippery mountain of depression, and I’ve stepped back from it for a minute. And that’s okay. That’s all I need. I’m giving myself permission to slack now.

I’m going to go watch Mulan.

My History of Depression

I’ve been absent here for a while, but I’m posting quite a bit over on my tumblr about our upcoming move and randomness.

I don’t post much about things that are important to me, but I’m still figuring out. Things like feminism, spirituality, how to live a meaningful life. I generally sit in my pile of thoughts, asking silent questions, seeking out answers (thank you internet), thinking some more, and once my thoughts have reached a jello-like feeling of cohesion, then I start talking about them. To a few people. Maybe re-post a few articles that resonate with me, see what conversation it sparks. This drives Jonathan bonkers.

Jonathan likes input on every part of his thought process. He needs the rapid fire bounce of ideas among multiple brains, reforming and rebuilding his thoughts and opinions through external interaction. So when I sit and think on an idea for days or weeks or months and finally start to talk about it, my first external interactions are much more fully formed than his and (exacerbated by my Yankee tendency to talk about all my opinions and beliefs as FACT, no matter where I am in my thought process) it seems to him as if I’ve gone and made a giant decision or belief change by myself, without letting him in on the process, when I’m just reaching another step in my process.

Sometimes I feel like I should talk about these things more, sooner, publicly. I’ll start to post something and pull back, not ready or able to spend energy engaging in a meaningful discussion. External interaction takes a lot of energy out of me anyway, and talking about things I’m still figuring out takes even more. I can talk your head off for hours about the importance of story and beautiful words in the history of humanity and the lives of individuals. Talk for days. But if there’s a discussion about gender inequality in media? Unless it’s one-on-one, I’m probably going to sit back and listen, engaging silently. One of the things I’ve learned from dealing with my depression is to know my boundaries and respect them, but don’t let them limit me.

Howard Tayler (creator of Schlock Mercenary and member of the fabulous Writing Excuses team) opened up about specifics of his mental health on twitter this week, and several people jumped in to support him and share their own stories. This happens in spurts in different communities (and more and more often in creative communities) and I adore Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) for her openness and the openness she inspires among other fabulous people about their struggles with their mental health. And many of the communities I’m a part of talk about the need to destigmatize mental illness, but part of the discussion that struck a chord for me in the Twitter discussion was when someone said that the more we talk about mental illness, the more people will see it as an actual illness, Howard responded, “Which is one reason why, even though it’s embarrassing and it hurts, I tweet about it to 7,000 people.”

While I may not be up for a discussion about my soup of developing thoughts, theories and beliefs, I’m in a really good place with my depression. It doesn’t hurt me to talk about it. At this very moment (though I can’t promise anything for this afternoon, tomorrow or next week), I’m not in the middle of it. But other than one-on-one conversations and the occasional re-post of a blog or video, I haven’t talked about it publicly. And if Howard Tayler can share his story while in the immediacy of the moment with 7,000 strangers, I can surely share my story with a much smaller audience of people who likely know me while I’m in a moment outside of depression.

Note for my mother: I don’t know how much of this I’ve actually told you. You should probably grab a box of tissues. Because I know you, even though this story is past and has a happy middle. The ending has not yet come.

I was chronically depressed from age twelve to age nineteen, and probably bits and pieces after that. I have never seen a doctor about my depression. At first, it was because I was a kid and I didn’t know any better. My mom was in a really bad place and not able to see it for me, and my dad worked a lot to keep us afloat. As an adult, I was either doing “okay” or so deep in the middle of it I had trouble holding two thoughts together, and now I’ve dealt with a lot of the history/hurt issues and have figured out a process that works for me that doesn’t involve meds. (I am ridiculously lucky that I can currently control or mediate my depression without prescriptions. I don’t know if this will last forever, and I’m not against medication if there comes a time where I need it.)

Without giving too much of my mother’s story, because it’s hers to give, not mine, what you need to know to hear my story is that my mom slipped into a bad place after my youngest sister was born when I was six, and she doesn’t remember several years — from about then to when I was twelve, from what she’s told me.

I can remember the exact moment I stopped telling her anything important to me. I was eleven, and I had start writing a new story, Siri and the Fairies. I excitedly formatted and printed the pages of the first couple chapters I had written, making them look as much like a real book as I could, and took them to her to read. She was sitting at a table, sewing, I think. She took the pages from me, ran her eyes down the lines of words,said, “That’s nice,” and set them aside. As an adult, I know that she might not have been able to engage with me at the moment — I know what it’s like to have a one-track mind, and I’d interrupted her in a project. I know now she was in the midst of a bad place and it’s unlikely she remembers this moment at all. But eleven year old me didn’t know this, and eleven year old me didn’t feel worth much at that moment.

I was a very happy and confident child and a very sad, awkward, and confused pre-teen and teen. We started homeschooling when I was eleven. School, which I had wanted to attend since I was three, had become an unhappy place for me. I had a teacher in third grade who played favorites, and somewhere between first grade and leaving public school, I went from happy, engaged and popular to awkward, angry and bored. Mom told me a story (which I had apparently blocked from my memory) of my classmates booing me off our Junior Olympic field. I remember many many times, wishing that I didn’t exist. Thankfully, never considering suicide, just wishing for a state of non-existence. I remember going to an overnight birthday party for a long time friend of mine. She didn’t live in town, but she stayed with her grandmother often, and we’d set a tent up in their backyard. I knew a couple of the other girls from summer soccer, but most were strangers. I don’t remember how it escalated, but I ended up curled at the bottom of the tent while the other girls kicked at me (thankfully not hard enough to cause any pain) and poked and scratched me with the fake fingernails we’d put on earlier that night. Around two in the morning they got bored and left the tent for a while, and I bolted, running as fast as I could for her grandmother’s door, banging until they woke up and let me in. I slept in their spare room and they made the girl apologize. I don’t know if they told my parents. I never let myself be around her without adults again. We connected on Facebook a while ago. I don’t know if she remembers this.

I remember a short period of time where I couldn’t tell dreams from reality, or my memory was so jumbled it seemed like dreams and reality melding. Stupid stuff. Knowing that my sister had gotten a second piercing when such a thing had never happened. Knowing that I had told my mom about plans to go to a concert with a friend when I never did.

I read a story once where the character had trained himself to feel no emotion. That’s how I remember it, at least. It may have been that he trained himself to show no emotion. But I thought that was the best thing ever. How great would it be to not have to deal with emotion? I set out to systematically destroy my emotions so that I wouldn’t care. If I didn’t care, if I didn’t get excited, I wouldn’t be hurt.

The problem is that just doesn’t work. It’s actually fairly easy to destroy positive emotions. It’s not so easy to destroy negative emotions. I don’t know if it’s even possible. And in a way, I succeeded. I became extremely apathetic. I was able to control how I showed emotion — which was that I didn’t. I made myself that way. On purpose. Now, I can’t think of a worse way to choose to live your life.

When I was sixteen I went to Jamaica for the summer. It’s been ten years ago and I’ve only recently started to think about looking for the journals I wrote during that time. Only recently have I come to a place where I could handle it. While I was there, the woman I was staying with saw the disconnect in me, the lack of emotion when I should be hurt or sad or angry or happy or content. She started asking uncomfortable questions, even getting mad at me, at times making me feel worse than I already did, but she told me something that no one else had told me before. That my home life wasn’t normal. That it wasn’t my fault. And I finally started thinking about things that I had been hiding from. For the first few years after I started dealing with my depression, much of figuring out who I really was centered on defining my relationship with my mother.

Like I said before, my mom was in a bad place, and there’s a lot of time lost to her memory. During the worst years, she was inconstant, unpredictable, in pain (both physical from fibromyalgia and constant kidney stones — at least once a week, if not more — and emotional), hurt, angry, and it lead into a cycle of more hurt and anger as she saw how she treated us, how she treated Dad, how she treated herself, and she didn’t know how to fix it. I much of my childhood and teenage years defining myself by how I perceived my mother felt about me and how to live with her, to lessen amount of emotional pain and yelling. My sister and I, in a discussion at youth group, once told what we thought was a humorous story about waiting to ask Mom anything until after she had her pain pills because if you asked before then, it was always stressful and generally a “no”. We didn’t realize this wasn’t normal.

Maybe my mother’s influence on how I saw myself was stronger because I was homeschooled. I don’t know. I wouldn’t have given up being homeschooled for anything, though, and I got through highschool without ever trying illegal drugs. (Still haven’t. Can’t stand the smell of pot after smelling the giant cigars of it they smoked outside the school I taught at in Jamaica.) I had my first wine cooler when I was sixteen. I don’t know even half the trouble my parents had gotten into by the time they were sixteen.

Even though I started realizing how unhealthy my family environment was (because while my mom was the most obvious influence, none of us were blameless), I still held on to a lot of blame, a lot of guilt. I still felt intrinsically unlovable, undesirable, and useless.

While I was in Jamaica, my mom read an email I had sent to my friends about all the things I was dealing with. She sent me a long letter. I sent her a long letter back. My entire family was angry at me. I was violating the invisible, silent code of acquiescence that had guided our lives for years, and because I wasn’t at home, they were the ones to deal with the consequences. I was told that I was the one at fault. That I was rebellious. That I was blaming people for my own problems.

When I returned home a month later, there was a two week grace period, and then I remember standing in the entry of our kitchen, my mother and I screaming at each other, the rest of the family hunkered down a the kitchen table with her, caught in the crossfire. Shortly after that my mother started seeing a counselor. I went with her once.

There are very few moments, if any other than this, that I can say changed my life completely. I believe that most changes are gradual and small and a hundred thousand tiny changes build up into the big changes. Changes like — realizing your family isn’t normal. Changes like — realizing you aren’t intrinsically broken.

But Bonnie said this, and it changed my life:

We as human beings tend to personalize things. You bake a cake, and someone says they don’t like it. We interpret that as, “I’m a horrible cook.” Someone criticizes your child, for any reason, “I’m a horrible parent.” The next time someone says something that you think is negative about you, look at what they said. Are you simply personalizing their statement? Maybe they just don’t like cake.

Of course my life wasn’t immediately sunshine and roses, but she gave me a key to unlock a truer vision of myself.

Mom adds this:

At Bonnie’s urging and a lot of convincing by her, I started taking meds to treat my depression. I was already on so many meds, I didn’t want to take anymore, but I was clinically, massively depressed and although I didn’t and still don’t like the emotional numbing  effects of the meds, it was what I needed at that point to be able to begin the long, uphill climb of being able to live a “normal” life. I think there a lot of people who feel like they can do it without meds, who in reality, are like me, and really need the meds, whether it is a temporary or life long need is something only they and their doctor can tell when they have gotten to a better place. For me, it still requires a low dose of antidepressant during the October to April season [Crystal note: there is little sun in western New York during this time]. It is just something that I have to do for me and the ones that I love. I hate that it dulls my emotions but am so grateful that it does at the same time. The good gets dulled with the bad, but it is better than having that huge weight of BAD FEELINGS dragging me down.

I had one year after Jamaica before I left for college. For most of that year, I just ducked my head and trudged on. I remember being extremely depressed that winter. I didn’t do any schoolwork from November to April. I ate, slept, worked, and if I had the energy for it, read, but mostly I slept and worked.

I met Jonathan, now my husband, and we quickly began dating. I began to realize maybe I was loveable. I continued working through all my issues. We dated for a year, and he broke up with me over Christmas break. I was devastated, but one morning after returning to school, I woke up and I was not depressed. I don’t know why then, in one of the most emotionally turbulent periods of my life, I had a giant up step instead of a giant down step. I don’t know how to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been depressed. I had lived with this sense of overall grey for as long as I could remember, and I simply woke up one morning without it. It didn’t stay away, but I knew there was something other to aim for.

(Clearly Jonathan and I got back together.)

After Jamaica, and talking to Mom’s counselor and moving to college, I held my family at arm’s length for quite a while. I put extremely firm boundaries up about what I would and would not talk to them about. Finances were off the table. Friends and movies were fine. There were still upsets. Really bad upsets. I silently made a decision to not stay with my family for more than a week at a time.

Mom had been working back and forth with her doctor for years, trying to find the right cocktail of drugs that would mediate her physical and mental issues, and they finally stumbled on a key: vitamin D. They visited Jonathan and I for Thanksgiving the first year or second year we were married, and my mom was a brand new person. She had energy! She was making jokes! She was getting all handsy with Dad.

So I started taking Vitamin D. Just 1000IUs. Just in case. I knew Western NY was bad for Vitamin D deficiency because there was no sun in the winter. And now I worked in an office all day, so I probably wasn’t getting enough now either. Jonathan was working on the campaign, and toward the end of it, I was luck to see him three times a week. I went to bed before he got home (if he got home) and was up and headed to work before he woke. The second winter in Nashville was bad for me. Very similar to my senior year in high school, I ate, slept, walked the pups, and went to work. Mostly slept and worked. I was too tired to even watch TV. If I wasn’t asleep, I simply laid in bed, existing. Not thinking, not doing. Maybe holding the dogs close and petting them. It took me two years in Nashville to make any friends. I think most of that was because I had no energy to engage people, but a good part is that Nashville is not an easy city to start up in.

There were times I’d be sitting at my desk at work and I would feel utter panic descend on me. I knew that I was crappy at my job. I knew that everyone hated working with me. I knew I was a failure. I knew they just put up with me because they had to. I’d have to go into the bathroom to breath so I wouldn’t burst into tears in the office.

I was tired of being tired. At some point I upped my Vitamin D usage to 5000IU and that won me quite a bit of life, but I still didn’t feel like a real girl. I went to see a doctor. I’d probably been taking Vitamin D for a year and a half, two years at this point. She told me to handle my tiredness, to eat more but smaller meals, and if that didn’t help, we’d get me some pills. She also did bloodwork and my Vitamin D she said was “fine” even though it was at the absolute bottom of “normal” range. Even after taking 5000IUs of Vitamin D for a year. I didn’t go back to her.

I started researching diets for energy, and came across Paleo. Paleo is pretty much the best thing that has every happened to me physically. I lost thirty pounds over two years of intermittent Paleo. I discovered that when I have a lot of carbs and sugars, my depression is more likely to pop up. When I’m on hardcore Paleo, I only need 3-6 hours of sleep a night and I have energy throughout the rest of the day. The stomach pain I’d been having randomly since college, pain that at times put me screaming on the ground (this happened once or twice a year) and a clenching stomach and heartburn every time I ate, disappeared. For the first time that I could remember, I was consistently without depression.

I got cocky. I forgot to take my Vitamin D with me for a weekend trip, and when I got back home I continued to forget to take it. Within two weeks, I was back to the worst I’d ever been, except this time Jonathan wasn’t on a campaign and he could see how bad I was. There were arguments. There were tears. There was once again feeling like I was broken so bad I was never going to be fixed. And there was the realizing it had been a while since I had taken my Vitamin D. Within a few days of taking it, I was back to a level of life beyond simply existing.

Sometimes the Vitamin D isn’t enough. Sometimes I’m not eating well enough. Sometimes my body just says, “Screw you. Meltdown time.” Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m just having normal doldrums or if I’m headed into a depressive episode. But most days are okay. Some days are good. A few days are great. Mental illness sucks. I’m happy I’ve found what helps me deal with it.

(Almost Gluten Free) Irish Car Bomb Brownies

**Edited 7/25/2013 after making second batch and testing some improvements**

This has nothing to do with writing, reading, or the awesome creativity existing in this wild world other than this adventure fulfilled my creative need for the evening. And let me tell you, these may be the best brownies I have ever made. Ever. I was a little nervous how this recipe would turn out as I took two different recipes, mashed them together and made a few extra substitutions. It may be impossible for me to actually follow a recipe exactly. Though I may have followed my Oxtail Soup recipe exactly. Maybe.

My source recipes were Irish Car Bomb Brownies and Gluten-Free Fudgy Brownie Cupcakes.

(The “almost gluten free” comes from the Guinness. And it’s still up for discussion whether whiskey contains enough gluten to be an issue for many people or not.)

Brownies

  • 3 ounces semi-sweet Baker’s chocolate
  • 2 ounces unsweetened Baker’s chocolate
  • 1/4 cup canola oil (or coconut oil)
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 1/3 cup coconut flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp xanthum gum
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 10 oz Guinness (if you buy an 11.5 oz bottle, you can take a big swig and you’ll be about right)

Bailey’s Irish Cream Swirl

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 cup agave nectar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup Baileys Irish Cream

Whiskey Ganache

  • 16 oz. chocolate chips (milk chocolate will need more chocolate or less cream, 1/2 dark and 1/2 semi sweet gives a nice sharp taste to blend with the sweet)
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • a shot plus a dash of Irish Whiskey
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 9X13 inch baking dish with foil, fitting it around the sides. Parchment paper might also work. This will be important in getting the ganache to not make a mess everywhere. Make sure it reaches higher than your brownie mixture will fill it. My edges on the side were just a bit lower than the edges of my pan.
  2. In a mixing bowl whisk together the light brown sugar, almond flour, coconut flour, fine sea salt, baking soda, and xanthum gum.
  3. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler over low heat (I used a smaller pot and a pyrex bowl), gently stirring. When the chocolate is melted, remove from heat and stir in the oil to combine.
  4. Add the eggs, vanilla extract and melted dark chocolate mixture. Beat for two minutes, until the batter thickens and becomes smooth and glossy. It should look, feel and taste (if you are one to enjoy raw batter like I am) like a good store bought brownie mix right now. Add the beer. This will make your batter very thin.
  5. Cream the cream cheese and agave nectar together until completely smooth. Add 1 egg and 1/4 cup Baileys Irish Cream and beat until smooth.
  6. Pour half of the brownie batter into the prepared pan. Top with the Bailey Cream Cheese mixture, then add the rest of the brownies batter. Use a spatula to swirl the two mixtures together.
  7. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until a tooth pick inserted into the middle comes out clean. (I think I was closer to 40-50 minutes. My power cut off and I had to restart all my timers, so I ended up checking it every five minutes at the end.)
  8. Allow the brownies to cool completely in the pan.
  9. Melt the chocolate chips in your double boiler, adding the heavy cream and Irish Whiskey. I may have added a bit more than a dash extra of Irish Whiskey.
  10. Pour over the brownies.
  11. When picking up the pan to put brownies in the fridge, do NOT tip the pan too far and dump delicious ganache all over the floor unless you have a very chocolate tolerant dog waiting to clean it up for you.
  12. Using the foil edges, carefully lift the brownies out of the pan. Cut and serve. (The brownies cut much better while they are cold, but taste better at room temperature.) I left my brownies in the fridge overnight, then cut. Rinsing my knife in hot water between slices made it a very clean, pretty cut with little crumbs. I did cut off some messy edges where the brownie structure was crumbling.


**Updates include: decreasing the oil, increasing the flowers, notes on the ganache chocolate choice**

To Read List Additions

I may have gone slightly crazy with the Goodreads bar code scanner at the book store. Here’s what I added to my “To Read” list this week, in no particular order.

Knox was born into one of the City’s wealthiest families. A Patron, he has everything a boy could possibly want—the latest tech, the coolest clothes, and a Proxy to take all his punishments. When Knox breaks a vase, Syd is beaten. When Knox plays a practical joke, Syd is forced to haul rocks. And when Knox crashes a car, killing one of his friends, Syd is branded and sentenced to death.

Syd is a Proxy.  His life is not his own.

Then again, neither is Knox’s. Knox and Syd have more in common than either would guess. So when Knox and Syd realize that the only way to beat the system is to save each other, they flee. Yet Knox’s father is no ordinary Patron, and Syd is no ordinary Proxy. The ensuing cross-country chase will uncover a secret society of rebels, test both boys’ resolve, and shine a blinding light onto a world of those who owe and those who pay. Some debts, it turns out, cannot be repaid.

 

Just because she’s confined to the planet, doesn’t mean she can’t reach for the stars.

2788. Only the handicapped live on Earth. Eighteen-year-old Jarra is among the one in a thousand people born with an immune system that cannot survive on other planets. Sent to Earth at birth to save her life, she has been abandoned by her parents. She can’t travel to other worlds, but she can watch their vids, and she knows all the jokes they make. She’s an ape, a throwback, but this is one ape girl who won’t give in.

Jarra makes up a fake military background for herself and joins a class of norms who are on Earth for a year of practical history studies excavating the dangerous ruins of the old cities. She wants to see their faces when they find out they’ve been fooled into thinking an ape girl was a norm. She isn’t expecting to make friends with the enemy, to risk her life to save norms, or to fall in love.

 

Here in a vast lost valley, society has split into two: the Wanderers, who team together to battle against the elements and each other in the harsh world of the desert, and those who live in the pyramid-city of Arcone, whose closed environment and tightly controlled society enable them to maintain a more civilized existence in the face of an environmentally devastated planet. Conflict is inevitable . . .

Kean is a Wanderer, adopted into a team that has protected him since he was a child. Essa lives with her parents in the pyramid, and chafes at the mental and physical restrictions the government enforces to protect its people. But when a rogue Wanderer plans an attack on the city to gain its resources for his people, Kean and Essa’s paths collide with an impact that will alter their lives forever.

 

Some fled the Old World to avoid war, and some fled to leave behind magick. Yet even the fiercely regulated New World–with its ranks and emphasis on decorum–cannot staunch the power that wells up in certain people, influencing the weather and calling down storms. Hunted, the Weather Witches are forced to power the rest of the population’s ships, as well as their every necessity, and luxury, in a time when steam power is repressed.

Jordan Astraea hails from a flawless background with no taint of magick, but on her seventeenth birthday she is accused of summoning an unscheduled storm. Taken from her family, Jordan is destined to be enslaved on an airship. But breaking Jordan may prove to be the very thing her carefully constructed society cannot weather.

And losing Jordan forever may force her beau, Rowen, to be the hero he would have never otherwise dared become.

 

Elizabeth Caldwell doesn’t feel emotions . . . she sees them in human form. Longing hovers around the shy, adoring boy at school. Courage materializes beside her dying friend. Fury and Resentment visit her abusive home. They’ve all given up on Elizabeth because she doesn’t succumb to their touch. All, that is, except beautiful Fear, who sometimes torments her and other times plays her compassionate savior. He’s obsessed with finding the answer to one question: What happened to Elizabeth to make her this way?

They both sense that the key to Elizabeth’s condition is somehow connected to the paintings of her dreams, which show visions of death and grief that raise more questions than answers. But as a shadowy menace begins to stalk her, Elizabeth’s very survival depends on discovering the truth about herself. When it matters most, she may not be able to rely on Fear to save her.

 

Lexi Ryan just ran away to join the circus, but not on purpose.

A music-obsessed, slightly snarky New York City girl, Lexi is on her own. After making a huge mistake–and facing a terrible tragedy–Lexi has no choice but to track down her long-absent mother. Rumor has it that Lexi’s mom is somewhere in Florida with a traveling circus.

When Lexi arrives at her new, three-ring reality, her mom isn’t there . . . but her destiny might be. Surrounded by tigers, elephants, and trapeze artists, Lexi finds some surprising friends and an even more surprising chance at true love. She even lucks into a spot as the circus’s fortune teller, reading tarot cards and making predictions.

But then Lexi’s ex-best friend from home shows up, and suddenly it’s Lexi’s own future that’s thrown into question.

 

Period 8. An hour a day. You can hang out. You can eat your lunch. You can talk. Or listen. Or neither. Or both. Nothing is off-limits. The only rule is that you keep it real; that you tell the truth.

Heller High senior Paul Baum—aka Paulie Bomb—tells the truth. Not the “Wow, that’s an ugly sweater” variety of truth, but the other kind. The truth that matters. It might be hard. It often hurts. But Paulie doesn’t know how not to tell it. When he tells his girlfriend Hannah the life-altering, messed-up, awful truth, his life falls apart. The truth can get complicated, fast.

But someone in Period 8 is lying. And Paulie, Hannah, and just about everyone else who stops by the safe haven of the P-8 room daily are deceived. And when a classmate goes missing and the mystery of her disappearance seeps beyond P-8 and into every hour of the day, all hell breaks loose.

 

When Mallory discovers that her boyfriend, Jeremy, is cheating on her with an online girlfriend, she swears off boys. She also swears off modern technology. Inspired by a list of goals her grandmother made in 1962, Mallory decides to “go vintage” and return to a simpler time (when boyfriends couldn’t cheat on you online). She sets out to complete grandma’s list: run for pep club secretary, host a dinner party, sew a homecoming dress, find a steady, do something dangerous. But the list is trickier than it looks. And obviously finding a steady is out . . . no matter how good Oliver (Jeremy’s cousin) smells. But with the help of her sister, she’ll get it done. Somehow.

 

In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft’s epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical—born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, her time is growing shorter by the day.

Aoife Grayson’s family is unique, in the worst way—every one of them, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their 16th birthday. And now, a ward of the state, and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, she is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.

 

What happens when The Firm meets Anita Blake? You get the Halls of Power—our modern world, but twisted. Law, finance, the military, and politics are under the sway of long-lived vampires, werewolves, and the elven Alfar. Humans make the best of rule by “the Spooks,” and contend among themselves to affiliate with the powers-that-be, in order to avoid becoming their prey. Very loyal humans are rewarded with power over other women and men. Very lucky humans are selected to join the vampires, werewolves, and elves—or, on occasion, to live at the Seelie Court.

Linnet Ellery is the offspring of an affluent Connecticut family dating back to Colonial times. Fresh out of law school, she’s beginning her career in a powerful New York “white fang” law firm. She has high hopes of eventually making partner.

But strange things keep happening to her. In a workplace where some humans will eventually achieve immense power and centuries of extra lifespan, office politics can be vicious beyond belief. After some initial missteps, she finds herself sidelined and assigned to unpromising cases. Then, for no reason she can see, she becomes the target of repeated, apparently random violent attacks, escaping injury each time through increasingly improbable circumstances. However, there’s apparently more to Linnet Ellery than a little old-money human privilege. More than even she knows. And as she comes to understand this, she’s going to shake up the system like you wouldn’t believe….

UtopYA Thought Crumbs

7/1/2013 10:44 Edit: Holy alien babies. How did I forget to mention this? Inception won debut novel of the year. Wowzers! So many congratulations to my dear friend, Teal. Working with you on this book has been so fun. Now, onward!

When talking to fellow writers, I often find myself saying, “Oh, there’s this great blog/blog post that you should read…” and this weekend at UtopYA* was no exception. I’m generally able to direct people to this blog and say, “Look at my links page,” because I list most of the things I regularly push people at there. But here is a list of the thought crumbs I want to expand on a bit.

First off, RSS Readers. If you are a writer and don’t know what an RSS feed is, I have no idea how you keep abreast of the industry. Not that you can’t, just that I would be completely lost without my reader. I currently follow 115 blogs. That number fluctuates as I add and remove sources, but it’s probably about what I normally have. (I’m clueless as to how to explain a blog if you’re not sure what that is, so let me Google that for you. I’m sorry. It’s a limitation of my generation that we’ve grown up with things that are so ingrained into us that trying to describe it to someone with out a frame of reference is just mind twisting.) Now, only about 70 of them are writing/publishing related. But that’s still a lot of websites that I would have to check every day if I wanted to see if they had any new information up. Some post less than once a month. Some post multiple times a day. I don’t have time to check every website.

That’s where RSS Readers come in. I’m not going to describe exactly what it is because I would get way too nerdy and technical to be helpful. In plain English, an RSS reader is a website or an application that checks your blogs for you and then delivers new posts to you. Kind of like email, but for websites. I currently use Feedly as my RSS reader. It has an Android and an iPhone app, so you can get your feeds (blogs) on all of your devices. I’m not a super huge fan of it, but as of today, Google Reader has been shut down (RIP), and I’ve gotten used to it, so I’ll probably stick with it.

Next, two blogs I think are fabulous.

The Passive Voice is an aggregator (reads a lot of blogs and websites and re-posts excerpts from the most interesting posts, he also adds a little commentary), so if you only ever pay attention to one blog, this is the one I recommend. BUT, the most important thing about this blog is that the fellow who runs it is actually a lawyer, and every now and then he’ll dig into actual publishing contract clauses and talk about things you should look for. This is huge, especially if you’re planning on working with a publisher at any point in your career. You’ll have to dig a bit into the contracts category, but they’re there. Ever heard of a basket clause and what it means to your contract? You should. Dig in.

Kris Writes is written by Kristine Katherine Rusch, author and editor. She came up through the 90′s and and 00′s as a traditionally published author and has transitioned over to self-publishing as well. She writes very insightful articles on publishing as a business, both traditional and self-publish. I’ve had many friends tell me they want to be traditionally published because they don’t want to worry about the business stuff and Kris makes it very clear that that mindset is setting yourself up for failure. Not that you shouldn’t go the traditionally published route, but that you need to be owning your career and not just handing it off to your agent and editor and hoping they make something good of it while you focus only on writing. She also has a series she’s writing right now on estate planning, outlining the questions you need to ask yourself: what happens to my published works when I die? How do I make sure everything goes to my heirs as planned? What if they have no interest in running the business end of things? How do I set it all up so that they’re still taken care of and have access to my legacy? And she offers some solutions, or at the very minimum arms you with the questions you need to ask your lawyer or financial advisor.

Another link you can throw into your RSS Reader is Writing Excuses. This isn’t actually a blog, but a podcast. They publish a new 15 minute episode every Sunday, and it’s always a great discussion on some writing or publishing career advice. Seriously. I love these people. You should be listening to every episode. And then buy their books. Because they’re wonderful. Both the people and the books, that is.

A specific blog post I recommended to some friends was Why YA Sex Scenes Matter. The article starts off very strongly (and has some trigger warnings at the top), but please read all the way to the end. The author isn’t saying every YA needs to have sex in it, but that we need to portray positive role models for sexuality in YA (Wicked Lovely — this particular example has no sex, but awesome representation of assertive sexuality) and not bad ones (Hush Hush).

Another is Should Writers Write Reviews? Shana Mlawski’s answer is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

I attended one panel on the difference between YA (Young Adult) and NA (New Adult). If you haven’t heard about NA, don’t worry; it didn’t exist a year ago. The panelists spent some time discussing the definitions of the two, and while some fabulous things were said, the lines were blurry. And honestly, they should be. The thing to understand about genre or category classifications in publishing is that they are marketing tools. YA developed out of the need to describe the kinds of books that were becoming popular that tended to feature a teenage protagonist with a fast engaging reading pace, but not all books featuring a teenage protagonist are YA. NA is developing out of a need of those YA readers growing up and wanting: 1. Characters who are growing up with them; 2. Edgier events and topics.

One of the things said about the difference between YA and NA was the age of the characters, with YA generally being teens and NA being college-age, though not confined to college attendees. And generally, I think most books marketed will match up with these definitions, but it will all come down to the readers you’re wanting to market to. Not that YA will only be marketed to teens and NA to twenty and ups, but if your book is similar to what is currently marketed as YA, you’re probably going to want to market it as YA. NA is new, and Chelsea Fine noted that right now, NA is being defined. NA has more sex, more consequences, older characters, darker stories; but not every book defined as NA has every one of these elements. Right now, NA is pretty much what the author or publisher isn’t willing to market as YA, but will engage many of the same readers.

Genre marketing isn’t a hard and fast rule. Someone told me that Ready Player One had issues selling initially because it was marketed as literary fiction, not science fiction. I couldn’t find a source to back this up, but it wouldn’t be the first time something with very genre elements has not been marketed as such. For instance, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is absolutely speculative fiction and absolutely literary fiction, and I’ve only seen it marketed as literary. And that’s okay. It seems to be doing quite well, as far as sales go. Genre classification is all about who you think is going to buy your book.


* UtopYA is a con focused on YA, writers, and publishing. I’m not sure what my expectations were, as I am generally not a fan of large groups of squealing women (squealing may be redundant — I don’t know if you can have a large group of women NOT squealing** unless there’s some kind of tragedy, and that’s just depressing), but the squealing calmed down after Friday and I had an absolutely lovely time. You should join me next year!

** I’ve actually sworn off all baby showers because of this, and should and when I get around to having children, I don’t know if I will have a baby shower of my own, other than with family.***

*** That’s a lot of commas for one sentence.

Books That Don’t Disappoint

I finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane about an hour ago (and I need to re-read it as soon as possible). After finishing the book, I had much the same reaction my husband had after finishing American Gods: most books are simply going to be unsatisfying for a while.

So I started thinking about books that wouldn’t fall into this category. Books that wouldn’t fail in comparison. And I came up with a short, inconclusive, in no particular order, true-for-me list.

Chime by Franny Billingsley — If you read Chime and don’t love it, don’t tell me. I spent about twenty minutes yelling at negative reviews that said I didn’t get it and the main character was contradictory and I like the time period, but what was up with the Old Ones and Boggy Mun? I’d never heard of those before, so it was probably bad history. I can’t even… just don’t get me started.

The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix — but anything by Garth Nix will do. If you liked Hunger Games, I recommend Shade’s Children as your gateway drug. If you’re a sci-fi fan, try A Confusion of Princes. Abhorsen would by my fantasy pick. He has other books out, but somehow, I haven’t read them yet. That will be remedied soon.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery — Somehow, I didn’t realize at first that this was a translation from the French original. Not that it matters, but major kudos to both the writer and the translator, because this is a beautiful book. Note of caution: can be depressing. I’m blaming the Frenchness of the story for that. That doesn’t mean anything at all, I just need something to blame for the feels.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino — Another translation, this one from Japanese. I’m not generally a mystery fan, but Higashino does it for me. In both books I’ve read, you know who the murderer is in the first chapter or two. “What’s the point then?” a mystery fan might rage. BUT, the reader spends the rest of the book is spent trying to figure HOW they did it, and to some extent, why.

A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle — My favorite of L’Engle’s fiction, it has held up under many, many readings.

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card — The first of Card’s books I read, and probably his best written. It’s a Sleeping Beauty tale blended with Russian fairy tales, time travel, hedge witchery, and true love.