writing stuff

The gluten-free pancake recipe that makes you forget it’s gluten-free

a stack of pancakes on a blue flowered plate

Wheatie pancakes by chotda on Flickr, CC-BY-2.0.

Tragedy usually strikes when you’re craving pancakes and you have just enough milk for coffee in the morning. Sacrifices are made and regret steams out of no matter what you had to settle for.

But we had a can of coconut, so I was feeling pretty confident about my choices when Elisabeth came home for lunch and the pizza that she had been planning on having for lunch somehow disappeared in the past 36 hours. But let’s not dwell on that. Instead, I offered to make the pancakes gluten-free, making what I thought was going to be a full circle massive compromise. Instead, I may have to change my 32 year old pancake recipe.

Wet ingredients:

  • 4 duck eggs or 5 chicken eggs
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 2-4 tbs brown sugar or to taste (if you can find coconut sugar use it here)
  • 1-2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

dry ingredients

  • 2 cups flour (I used 50% bob’s 1:1 and 50% of some featherlight mix I had (50% rice and 50% tapioca starch, but I would use all 1:1 the next time)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

Directions are pretty simple, mix wet with wet and dry to dry.  There’s no gluten in the batter so mix well. Cook on medium heat on a grill or frying pan until the edges are dry and the bubbles in the centre of the pancakes pop and don’t fill back in. The other side cooks in half the time.

Immediately serve to the person you love. Everyone else can hope you remembered to preheat the oven.

Between the coconut milk and the cinnamon, these are fantastic. I had completely forgotten they were gluten-free. My old recipe is for the big fluffy pancake. These are much more crepe-y, even with the leavening. I’d make these again in a heartbeat even if I had enough milk for pancakes and coffee.


Quality vs. Quantity

I got into an argument today over how much a writer *should* write in a day.

The idea that there is any set amount a writer should write is just ridiculous. I’ve read so many books by newbie authors where it was obvious that they had religiously wrote every. Single. Day. whether they felt like it or not.

Writing isn’t like walking to the next town over. When you walk, every step counts. When you write, every word doesn’t. If you write 2000 words every day, you’ll have a book finished in a month and a half. If you haven’t given those words enough thought, there’s a big risk that of those 100,000 words, only 25,000 of them count as steps towards your goal.

When I read unpublished fiction, there is nothing worse than words that don’t have a point. I would take an interesting story that has been put through Google Translate to and from Armenian than a story that is not bad. Bad writing has a charm to it as you are left wondering what ridiculous analogy or purple phrase the writer is going to write next. I’ve scanned books looking forward to see what word the author will use instead of “said”.

But writing that looks polished but says absolutely nothing? I’d rather shoot myself in the foot. There’s such a huge difference between not bad and good. Writing that isn’t bad has a long, long way to go before it ever hits good, and good writing has a long way to go before it hits great.

Just because you’ve written a 100,000 words, doesn’t mean you’ve written a novel yet. I once cut 40,000 words of a novel because I’d written myself into a corner and couldn’t get myself out. It was like cutting off my foot. And as much as I liked the final product, it still was just a practice novel.

Having a short story stretched out to a novel still isn’t the kiss of death. The second draft is where you take all the problems of the first draft and smooth them out. When I was first starting out I thought that writers who rewrote drafts without referring back to their original drafts were mad, but after I tried it a few times, I really saw how useful the technique is.

There are a lot of changes you can make in the original draft. You can edit characters in and out, you can add a significant event or cut it out, but one of the things you can’t change once the story is on the page is your point of view character’s motives. Anything that is tangible can be cut out or sewn in, but intangible things, like a character’s motive or what’s at stake is going to affect every single sentence.

There are a million writers out there writing in your genre, but the only competition out there is yourself. Writing isn’t a lottery that you win by getting your book selected, it’s the culmination of all your hard work. If one publishing house doesn’t recognize the value of your work, another one will. Good story telling only competes with itself.

And if you’re not willing to put in the work, up to and including rewriting the whole story or abandoning the whole project as time well spent, but not worth the time and effort to fix all that is wrong with it, the next person will. Nothing is more heartbreaking than watching a writer write their first book and then throw a decade behind trying to get that book published instead of accepting it as what it is and going on with the next story in their heads.

Writing needs craft as much, if not more, than it needs talent. Whether a first draft takes you ten years or two weeks, it’s going to need to be tightened. The old saying, you have good, fast and lots, pick two is only half right. You only get two, but even if you’re cursed like I was at having lots and fast, you can still make it good, it just takes more time.

And time, as an unpublished writer, is the one thing you have lots at. The only person standing in the way between you and publication is you, and not as your evil twin

Though if you do have an evil twin, that’s awesome.

“The City”

I grew up in a small town called Slave Lake. On the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, not Great Slave Lake, where by great fluke, I was born and spent my first five years. The point of the story is Edmonton was “the city”. It was a mythical, magical place. As any small towner could tell you going into “the city” was reason enough to skip school for the day. Hell, sometimes it was reason enough to skip several school days, and no teacher questioned it.

And now I live in Lethbridge. It’s a much bigger city when compared to Slave Lake, which didn’t get a traffic light until I was in grade 10. The traffic light made the front page. But it was a weekly paper, so it made the front page 8 days after the traffic light had actually gone up. Another triumph in investigative journalism, let me tell you. And “the city” is now Calgary, not Edmonton, and it’s only two hours away not three.

Growing up, the books I read all took place somewhere else. And I don’t just mean the fantasy novels. New York, Los Angeles, London. The British countryside. The British countryside a thousand years ago. Even small town America. It would have been easy to internalize the message that stories happened somewhere else, and writers came from anywhere but here.

When I started to get published, my vampire novels took place in New York. Some of my short stories happened in no town in particular, or a vaguely New York-ish metropolis. (I always got confused when I was younger. A metropolis was any large city. But then there was the Metropolis of Daily Planet and Superman fame…)

Somewhere along the way, I started setting my contemporary stories in Canada. Downtown Calgary, in and around Victoria, small town BC (with a trip to Edmonton at Christmas), along the highway outside of Canmore. I blame Rob Sawyer for the impetus, who is proudly unapologetic and vocal about telling Canadian stories. (You can read more about his thoughts on Canadian settings for SF in his advice for beginning writers.)

(You know what else is cool? Shaun Haunter’s The City We See blog, posting  book excerpts about Calgary through the eyes of writers.)

I could say it’s about writing what you know. And there’s no denying that knowing a place in person can affect how you write about it. But that’s not it–or at least not all of it. You don’t need to be in New York for your story to matter.  I think there’s room for so many voices out there that don’t always get heard. Tell the stories about where you’re from, and where you are, and where you want to be.

Failing to continue

When I got to about the 40k mark in Shark Punching (still the working title), I realized I had no idea how I was going to end the story. Worse, when I thought about it, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to end it, it was that I hadn’t started it to begin with.

In fantasy in particular, I find that the plot where characters walk to places and talk to people is very easy to recognize and very hard to realize you’re doing it, too. Shark Punching was the story of two guys who walked to a river, and one of them swam it, punching a shark on his way. The world was there, it’s just my character didn’t interact with it.

Start to finish, from first draft to the end of the second, Shark Punching took me thirteen months to write, but only three of those were active writing. The distance between the first draft and the second gave me the time and perspective I needed to see the failing in the first draft.

Marvellous mundanity

TheHeroWithAThousandFacesI was watching Extra Credits, because everything they say about the narrative of a story translates almost perfectly into writing, when a Joseph Campbell quote summed up perfectly a problem I’ve been having with most first drafts of most of the books I read. The mundane is too boring in what should be an exciting world.

Books in the speculative realm all too often focus on the boring mundane moments in the story. The bathing, the eating, the walking…even if it’s the person’s job to kill other people, quite often they are bored with it in the wrong way. Apathy is a hard emotion to write in a way that is engaging because if the character does not care, it is very hard to get the reader to care, either. Visual media is slightly different, but that too cool for school character that just cannot be assed has been used to the point where they’re a paper-thin representation of what the character could have been.

I think this can be fixed by starting at that moment where the story is new to the character and you see that wondrous world emerging from what the character has known all their life, and watching *other people* be blase about the magic or technology allows the reader to have that bridge between the readers who have never seen it before and the world where the tools are common.

Balancing awe vs. mundane is not a first draft issue though. Too many students have sat in too many classes talking about in media res that now we have a flood of stories that are starting after the character has already rubbed off all the awe, and they’re now just plodding along.

I don’t want to read characters plodding. I want them to bring me into their world with them. If scenes can be summed up in a few lines as to what happened but doesn’t change the plot itself, it should be nothing more than a bridging scene. No more chapters of characters doing everyday things unless that every day thing is a break from their new reality and even then, be brief.

Front-loading the beginning with awesome things, even if you don’t know why yet

Shark punching has become Hand, Tongue and Coin, all things relating to deadman magic in this world. I had hand and coin being shown as to why it would be important in the plot, but I just told the readers that what you can do with a hand, you can do with a tongue.

A perfectly decent scene in draft two became a perfect place to showcase what you can do with a deadman’s tongue for magic, and spelling that out made me realize that a completely separate thing that I had included just because it was important suddenly worked perfectly with the magic system.

I’ve really been noticing how much most of the fantasy I’ve been reading of late is perfectly flat. High detail can sell the big leaps; if you can show the reader that you can describe something you’re both familiar with in a way that feels right, when you tell me they can fly, I’m more likely to go along with it, but bogging the story down in boring activities described in excruciating detail is just excruciating. If you’re writing a fantasy, even in the opening scene but also, especially in the opening scene, I want to be sold on the wondrous. So I put stuff in the beginning that I don’t know why it belongs. I don’t have to know while I put it in. But the way it turns out that it’s important, to me, is the most interesting part of plot.

And what goes nowhere gets cut, so no one has to see all the times the bat and the ball do not make a solid, sweeping connection. Near misses in baseball are almost as exciting as the massive cracking ball-on-bat action. Intentional near misses in fiction work almost as well, too. Not connecting without a reason as to why? Cut.

Charting emotional highs and lows in writing

Donald Maass says there should be tension on every page. You should print the book out, scramble the pages so that you’re not reading in sequence, and then make sure that every page has some bit of tension on it. I don’t do the scrambling or printing out bit, but I’m always trying to twist the screwdriver embedded in the characters’ backs just a little more.

I found though that my writing picked up when I realized that beyond tension on the page, every scene had to have one moment with an emotional high or low point. I found that every day, I write at least one scene as a whole unit, with one point at which the characters have that moment of climax (sometimes literally, though sex is hard because it releases tension and the whole boint of writing is bottling it up, so writing sex *and* mantaining tension is a bit of a foxtrot).

I don’t diagram my stories, but This person did. I work on a “if they have time to lean, they have time to scream” plotting structure where if I notice the characters have been sitting around talking, I throw a grenade into the mix and let them scramble. The biggest problem I have with most stories is the fact that so little happens over so many words, and making sure there is always something happening can help keep the story going. Being aware of how the emotional flow of the story is the first step having that be just part of your natural writing flow.

On not killing characters…

I’m at a part in Shark Punching where I need to have the bad guy have an early brush with the main character to set him up as a character. The bad guy gets cornered in the room and attacks another character who is trying to stop him. Part of me wants to kill the other character so that the bridge is burned and the MC can never go back, but if I do that, the MC won’t believe the bad guy when he tries to sell himself as just misunderstood. If he leaves the other guy dead, that’s out the window.

I’m writing a gritty fantasy with not a lot of hope, and brutal short life expectancies, but rather than that making life or happiness cheap, it’s the most valued commodity in the world. The world is going to be harsh and brutal, buy people clinging together for whatever reason have more motivation to hold on than let go.

I know Game of Thrones is big on introducing a one use character that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…(a)nd then is heard no more because his head is now on a pole or is encased in melted gold, but I think death should still have a more important reason than to just shock the MC. A brutal death that means nothing just desensitizes me, and I want my reader to remain fully engaged.

The first story I ever realized that killing a character wasn’t something to take lightly was in the sequel to the original version of Misbegotten. The MC’s brother lived and died as an ass, and when it came to the point where the MC was going to do something against his moral code to solve the problem, it didn’t ring right. Why would he care? Going back and changing the MC’s brother though, caused a log jam. I spent six months not touching the story and then six months trying to figure out a way around not killing a character that I had rewritten because now I cared if he lived or died, but the plot couldn’t move forward if he was just severely inconvenienced. There are times when the death has to happen, and there are times when you can spare the character who lives a lifetime of suffering if your character never has to see them again.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say every death should matter greatly, and having a senseless death be senseless should be like using fennel seeds. There are a few recipes where that taste fits exactly, but it’s not something anyone wants to eat all the time.

“As you know, Bob”‘s first cousin “As you can clearly see, Becky.”

“As you can clearly see, Becky,” is to description and direct thought what “As you know, Bob” is to information dumps and backstory. Both are ways to tell the audience what is/has happened and in the days of radio broadcasts, the characters needed to describe what they saw to people who could not see what was going on due to a limitation on the medium.

Having two characters describe what’s going on as though trying to explain to a third person who is not standing there, looking at the same thing the characters are looking at is almost invisible in fiction. It’s taken as a given that the format works. But I’ve always had something trigger in stories that are 90% dialogue, and it wasn’t until I read a couple stories where it was very obvious that the dialogue was for the reader’s sake and not for the characters in the moment that I was able to name the problem.

Conversation isn’t dialogue and dialogue isn’t conversation. But I think putting more of what is told to the character to inform the reader through the point of view of the character and having the characters only discuss what would be naturally discussed in moments of awe or high tension can only make stories better. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where no one ever uses dialogue as a tell, and that’s okay. In the right moment, it can work.

Pipeline plots and dopamine

There isn’t a lot I know about writing that didn’t start from a seed or a cutting of something else someone had said. We all have our particular talents, and mine is if I hear someone say it, I do not forget it. This has gotten me through four years of university while I was writing my book instead of taking notes on the lecture itself, but I also have the brain where if something makes sense to me, I don’t need to study it, I get it the first time. Conversely, if I do not understand it the first time, it takes many, many, many hours trying to work out exactly what the issue is.

But listening to Rob Sawyer talk about writing is like a Ph.D. writing class, and he willingly just gives away everything anyone ever needs to know to make their writing and their career better. If you walk in thinking that you do not need to learn anything more than you already know then the points will fly over your head and splatter on the wall behind you, but if you listen, it makes sense. And unlike science communicators like Richard Feynman, it keeps making sense, even after the lecture stops.

Rob was explaining how humor works. How making connections between two different things and having the brain building that bridge between them creates dopamine that rewards the brain. It’s why hearing a joke and telling the joke, the first time, are just as funny. The brain rewards you for making and using a new bridge. Then, things get less funny the more you hear it because the bridge isn’t new anymore and now that you’ve learned how to use it, the reward system packs up its stuff and hangs out at only the most happening new bridges. … … he might not have phrased it that way exactly.

The same thing happens with non-humor though. I figured out about a decade ago that I did not have to know exactly what was going on. The freedom of not knowing why X happens or what Z meant was incredibly freeing because I could write anything. Either my subconscious would make a connection, and it would look like I had planted that little detail in chapter three to have it bursting with fruit in chapter 27 on purpose, or I’d cut the seedling off in the rewrite, and no one would ever have to know anything was ever there.

This is why I question books written off an outline. Making the connections that have always been there but weren’t noticed before is not something done by a conscious mind. It’s the subconscious trained to put a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are the same color together, trying each piece with every other piece in the back of your mind while you’re doing anything. Thos connections are the most brilliant. To sit down before you even start the book and think that every decision in the book is going to be planned out ahead leaves the entire hiding in plain site connections unobtainable. Not all these connections snap into place. Sometimes you have to shave off bits of the existing writing or sometimes it completely changes the outcome, and on an outline, that ruins everything that follows completely. Yes, you can reoutline the new version, but every single time you come to a new decision, it means redoing and replanning. And yes, outliners can rewrite the whole thing with the connections after the fact, but figuring out that rewriting a book from the beginning is the best and easiest way to create a second draft isn’t something a lot of people believe. Let’s be honest.

I figured out something in shark punching last night that just curls my toes. It was there, from the very beginning that this is what the entire book was about, but until my main character went to the ship’s throne because he didn’t want to be locked up with a full chamber pot all day, everything snapped into place, and without having to go back and rewrite. This isn’t a skill that happens automatically. I figured out that you do not have to know what the point is, you just have to lay the pipe through the existing story so that when the point appears, you can use it where you need it without having to dig up the prose to lay down the new plot.

It’s a learned skill, but again, between forcing yourself to write when you don’t feel like it or teaching yourself how to want to write even when you’re not feeling it, the latter is always better. How could it not? Gym memberships are a billion dollar industry making money off the back of what people know they ought to be doing but don’t actual do.