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Archive for January, 2011

Wherefore art thou pancakePancakes are the breakfast chameleon, the food of a thousand faces, the Proteus of the pan. The basic recipe follows, but it’s the variations that get me all excited.

1 cup all-purpose flour (or 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup wheat flour) 
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 cup milk (or buttermilk)
1 large egg
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Mix the dry ingredients together (through salt) in a large bowl. Mix the wet ingredients together (milk through oil). Whisk the wet into the dry until you have a batter that will coat the back of a spoon. Don’t overmix–you don’t want to form gluten and make your pancakes tough. Pour out scant 1/4 cups of the batter onto a hot griddle or pan over medium heat. Cook for a few minutes on each side, flipping once.

This Sunday-morning superhero dresses in a variety of costumes. Try any of these variations:

  • Apple-cinnamon pancakes: Add 1 medium apple, shredded, and 1 tsp ground cinnamon to the batter. Serve with brown sugar and butter.
  • Banana pancakes: Add 1 large mashed banana to the batter. Serve with toasted walnuts.
  • Pear pancakes: Add 1 medium pear, shredded, and 1 tsp lemon juice to the batter.
  • Lemon pancakes: Add the zest of 1 lemon and half of its juice to the batter. Serve with powdered sugar. Or chocolate chips. Oh yes. Also works great with an orange or other citrus fruit.
  • Berry pancakes: After you pour your pancakes onto the pan, quickly drop 4-8 small berries into the batter. Works well with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cut-up strawberries. I like to keep plenty of syrup on hand to balance the added tartness.
  •  Hearty oat pancakes: Add 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 cup rolled oats (or even leftover oatmeal) to the batter. Great with fruit served on top. Also works with just about any hearty, non-sugary cereal with small pieces; muesli-style cereals with dates and raisins work great.
  • Candy bar pancakes: Add 1/4 cup shredded coconut and 1/4 cup toasted walnuts to the batter. Drop chocolate chips into the pancakes as they cook.

Inspired by the deliciousness of pancakes, my girlfriend and I once imagined a pancake-based superhero whose name was Flapjack. His power consisted of emitting huge pancakes the size of mattresses, which would enravel and trap bad guys in griddle-hot justice. His catch phrase was, “You’ve just been FLAPJACKED!” And now you have been, too.

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Heroes Don’t Eat

“Coffee’s for closers.” — Alec Baldwin, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

In stories, food is comfort. Food is home. Food symbolizes that life is going all hunky-dory and that there’s plenty of time to enjoy simple pleasures.

Therefore I believe that protagonists don’t get to eat.

Good stories make protagonists suffer. If your protagonist is eating, it’s a sign that things aren’t bad enough for him, and you need to revise.

Food represents the status quo. In the Monomyth, a comforting meal represents the Known, the commonplace world where the hero begins, the regaining of which is the ultimate purpose of the quest into the Unknown. If your hero is sitting down and having a pleasant nosh, he is not adventuring. He is putting his basic bodily hunger above the needs of his lofty goals. In essence he is saying, “I kind of want to pursue my destiny, but it can wait until I finish this basket of fries.”

But maybe, you say, a scene where your hero enjoys a little meal is a good way to break tension. Maybe it’s a nice plateau for your characters to rest on during their trek up Plot Mountain, and a nice bit of relief for the reader who could use a breather after all that stress.

No.

Food is so powerful a symbol–the enjoyment of food is so etched into the language of our lives and of our tales of them–that I argue you don’t get to use food as a positive device for your hero during the body of the plot. The hero has to be upset, because for her, the world is upset. And you can’t be upset and lick delectable grease off your fingers at the same time.

Now, you’re free to use food negatively, to reinforce your protagonist’s misery, absolutely. Your hero can repeatedly mutter, “I’m not hungry,” shoving away the plate of delicious grub, demonstrating her upsetness and her preoccupation with how bad things are. That helps the reader sort out what’s important to the hero. The reader wants your hero to get what she wants, and having the hero refuse the comfort of food is a sure sign that what she wants is not mere temporary, immediate comfort, but to achieve her distant, grand, ultimate goal.

Think about Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. Sam tries repeatedly to get him to eat lembas bread, but Frodo just won’t take it. The poor Ringbearer might choke down a few crumbs, but his heart ain’t in it. The magic of the ring and the crushing weight of bearing it is consuming him. The choking fumes of the mountain fill the air, and Sauron’s eye sweeps the rock, looking to kill him. It is no time for a picnic.

Contrast that with the unctious Denethor, Steward of Gondor, in Peter Jackson’s movie The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While his son fights a hopeless battle, Denethor callously munches on a tray of stringy chicken and bursts grape tomatoes in his teeth. It’s wonderfully sickening imagery: the perfect way to demonstrate Denethor’s inhumanity. And it shows how, whenever good has yet to prevail, food can serve as no comfort.

Sure, technically your hero is assumed to be eating somewhere along the way. If your story spans a lifetime, food has obviously been consumed in there someplace. But as you write, don’t focus on it. Let a comforting, home-cooked meal be the reward at the end, not a source of comfort in the middle. Let a batch of fresh cookies float tantalizingly out of reach. In the meantime, keep that reader hungry. Don’t feed your hero.

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So next month, February 2011, I have a personal writing goal. I am describing it here as part of a campaign of guilting myself into succeeding (this is what counts as being serious about a project, for me). It’s called

STORY STARTER MONTH

and it’s about stretching out those writing muscles. Each day in February I’m going to write the opening page to a new story and posting it right here. The rules are as follows:

  • 250+ words. Each day I have to write at least 250 words (around one printed page) of a new story. They’re not to be stories in their entirety; they’re just story starters. It’s about variety and momentum and turning off filters.
  • New story each day. That means new characters, new settings, new conflicts. Futzing around with a story from earlier in the month is against the rules. When March rolls around, I can look back and see what caught my interest, but for February, it’s new new new.
  • One day, one story. I can go over 250 words if things are rolling well, but I can’t do two story starters in one day. By the end of the month, I’ll have the first pages of exactly twenty-eight stories.
  • All written in February. I can sketch out some notes or whatever during January, but I can’t start any of the actual writing until February. The exercise is about getting ideas down on the spot.
  • Do it or else. If I miss a day, I get punished. Not sure how yet, but it will hurt. As a writer I think I am pretty good at thinking up bad things to happen to good people, so believe me when I tell you that I do not want to run afoul of this.

So… that should be craziness. I expect the story ideas will get odder as the month wears on. That is kind of by design. I want to use up the obvious, I-am-conscious-of-having-these ideas in the first week, use up the oddballs that I was secretly harboring in the second, and then tango my way to Crazytown from then on. Crazytown! Where the tango is transportation.

My goals for STORY STARTER MONTH are these:

  • Focus on hooks. The first page of a novel has to grip the reader. I’m going to work on my skills of creating a first page that takes one of those big meat-freezer hooks and impales you with it. I want these pages to make you sad that they are unturnable.
  • Focus on voice. I want to practice writing characters that feel like they’re climbing out of the words and having a seat next to you. That’s true in general, but I want to work on breathing life into these people from page one. They should come across with a real, human point of view.
  • Write every day. I want to get back into a steady writing rhythm. This blog is already part of that goal. So was NaNoWriMo last fall (which I “won,” meaning that I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November). I respond well to deadlines, so I’m creating twenty-eight of them.

So join me, won’t you? Check out my lunatic procession of opening pages, starting February the First. And feel free to run a STORY STARTER MONTH of your own.

Dinner: Chicken breasts sauteed with whole garlic cloves and drizzled with a Meyer lemon sauce. Mashed potatoes with butter, garlic, and parmesan. For dessert I had a nice, crunchy cranberry-chocolate biscotti from a batch I baked over the weekend, dunked in a glass of milk. *stomachpat* EDIT: A toasted piece of cranberry-walnut bread, also.

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Chapter One, Page One

Getting down that first line of writing is always rough. It’s like the first pancake — it’s going to stick weird, brown wrongly, and look heinous. That ghastly thing will be unpresentable, and your cooking skills are going to be seriously in question by yourself and others. If Ina Garten saw that floppy thing, she would laugh merrily in your face, and then stab you. You may not be fit to prepare food and you should probably just be put down.

These thoughts are normal. The important thing is to continue making pancakes. If everybody let these thoughts stop them, then no one would ever get to breakfast. Or write novels. Just pour that thing out there, let it ruin itself, and get on with it.

Easier said. But that’s what this blog is — an attempt to follow my own advice, both about writing and about food. Pour it out. Make a mess. In fact, make many, many messes, in the hope that lying somewhere under the maple syrup there will occasionally be some good-looking pancakes.

The truth, when it comes right down to it, is that I cannot manage to think about food or about writing without thinking that they are excellent metaphors for one another, so I have just given up trying to think about them as separate things. They are twined together like a strip of salty bacon and a fat, sweet sea scallop, or like the sadistic dance of a protagonist and villain. I eat and I write. That is basically it.

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