Deep Edits and Black Bean Soup

Cleveland Immersion Class, 2017

For the last several months, I’ve been looking forward to the first week in September. I hosted an immersion master class with the incomparable Margie Lawson and eight of my NEORWA friends. We followed the immersion with Margie presenting at NEORWA’s Cleveland Rocks Romance Conference. I learned how to use power words, have memorized rhetorical devices, and can deep edit like a boss.

Now that it’s over, I’m feeling energized and ready to take on the literary world by storm. Okay, maybe not–I’m still too tired and Margie would give me a frowny face for the cliche–but I certainly now have more tools to polish my manuscript.

If you’ve never done an immersion class or attended one of Margie’s workshops or online classes, I do hope you will. And in the meantime, here’s my recipe for vegan black bean soup (we ate a lot of soup), modified from Jonathan Waxman’s original meatier version (which is divine and which you can find in his book, A Great American Cook, on page 62):

Immersion Black Bean Soup
Serves about 8 hungry writers, or 10 less hungry ones

3 cups dried black beans
1 red onion, minced
cloves from 1 head garlic, chopped
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large bay leaf
1 to 2 tablespoons canned chipotle chiles in adobo, minced (remove seeds from chile if you prefer less heat)
3/4 cup fresh cilantro (including stems), chopped, reserving a couple tablespoons of the chopped leaves for garnish
8 cups vegetable broth
freshly ground pepper
Kosher salt
1-2 limes, cut into wedges
Tortilla chips
Creme fraiche or sour cream, Greek yogurt, or coconut milk yogurt

Rinse beans and soak overnight in a large pot of cold water. (You can also use the quick soak method–boil beans in a large pot of water for 1 minute, then remove from heat and let cool for an hour.) Drain.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic, and saute until onions are golden. Stir in the soaked beans, chipotle, cilantro, pepper (don’t add the salt yet!), and vegetable broth. Bring to a boil then reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 2-3 hours, or until beans are very tender. If soup is too thin, simmer uncovered for another 30 minutes. If soup is too thick, add more broth or water.

Discard the bay leaf and add salt to taste. Use an immersion blender to coarsely puree the soup (if you don’t have an immersion blender, you should get one, but in the meantime, you can puree the soup in small batches in a regular blender, then return to the pot). Reheat.

Top each serving with a dollop of yogurt or creme and the reserved cilantro. (Unless you’re me, and you forget the cilantro.) Serve with a lime wedge and tortilla chips.

 

 

 

 

 

The Middle Muddle

The Beginning

The Beginning

Every writer has his or her way of doing things.  Some writers write only one book at a time, beginning at the beginning and writing in an orderly fashion until the end. Other writers write one book at a time, but in pieces, writing a scene here and scene there and then weaving them all together.

Not me. I write several books at a time. I love, absolutely love, starting a book. The blank page is so full of possibility. Every book might be fabulous, might be a best seller. Every book has the potential to be written in an orderly fashion until I’m done.

Alas, every single book I write fails to meet that potential. Every. Single. One.

When I get to the middle–known by many writers as The Dreaded Middle–I come to a screeching halt. I have no idea where to go next. I am consumed by doubts:  This book is boring. This book is TERRIBLE. I suck at this. I’ll never write another book. 

So I fret. I try to plot a bit more, to think of situations to toss my characters into so they can get out of the mess they’re in. I re-read the outline, the synopsis, or the beat sheet I’ve prepared to get myself back on track. I stare at the last sentence I’ve written and type nothing else. I read writing books.

Then I get another idea for a book, so I plot that. I write a synopsis. I tell myself–and my writer friends, who are probably tired of hearing it–that THIS time, I will avoid the Middle Muddle. I will storm right through and take no prisoners. It will be AWESOME.

But of course it’s not. I get stuck in the middle, and the cycle starts again.

The EndWith every book, though, there comes a moment when the words flow again, where I get past the middle in a flurry of activity that sometimes causes me physical injury. I pound out the last 20 or 30 thousand words in half the time it takes to write the first 30,000.

Yesterday was such a moment. I went to a NEORWA meeting in the morning, learned about a great new writing center in the Cuyahoga County Public Library, then went to lunch with some of my chapter sisters. I bitched about the middle muddle, and when I got home, I pulled out the manuscript that’s been idle for 5 or 6 months, and started typing. I wrote 1400 words before dinner, and another 300 words before bed. I got past the middle. It felt amazing.

I have no idea why this happens. I don’t have any epiphanies, or sudden realizations about the characters or the plot that take me past it. I just start writing again.

Last night I realized that this is okay. It’s simply the way I write. Although I will continue to read writing books and talk to writer friends and plot and try to avoid the Middle Muddle, I have made my peace with it. I’m never going to write fast, never going to be like this prolific writer or that super organized one. I am my own writer, and I do things my way, even if that way is weird and confusing and occasionally demoralizing. Anyone who knows me is probably not at all surprised.

So, writer friends. How do you write? Orderly, piecemeal? One book at a time or several? Middle muddle or not?

The Grammar Grump: Adverbs

Ah, the adverb. The bane of editors everywhere, but I think they have their place. I love this quote about adverbs:

“Overuse at best is needless clutter; at worst, it creates the impression that the characters are overacting, emoting like silent film stars. Still, an adverb can be exactly what a sentence needs. They can add important intonation to dialogue, or subtly convey information.”  ― Howard Mittelmark, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide

I much prefer that one to Stephen King’s famous quote in the image to the left, which seems to me to be a bit harsh. Yes, adverbs can be overused–read any work from a new writer and you will see why–but in moderation, adverbs are an essential component in writing fiction.

 

 

So, to assist you in finding that fine line between just enough and too many, here are the rules for adverbs:

Adverbs are words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They specify manner, when, where, and how much.

He spoke loudly to be heard over the din. 
She read the letter quickly.
It was raining yesterday.
The dog ran far.
I always eat fish for dinner. (Okay, not really.)
I have never been to Argentina.

Not all adverbs end in -ly, and you can’t always make an adverb from an adjective simply by adding -ly.

Far, fast, ever, and after are all adverbs.
I came across hyperly yesterday in something I was editing. Nope, not a word.

Naturally, there are exceptions, because this is English. (If you ask me, the road to hell is paved with exceptions to English grammar rules.)

An adjective always follows a form of the verb to be when it modifies the noun before the verb.

I was nauseous.
His efforts to be helpful were fraught with peril. 

Verbs of sense and appearance are followed by adjectives when they modify the noun before the verb.

I felt awful.
This wine tastes terrible!

What about good vs well?

It is common to reply to the question “How are you?” with “I’m good.” Others respond with “I’m well.” (I once had a client from Russia who always responded with “Thank you, I am nice.” It was such a lovely phrase, and he was indeed such a nice man, I was very sad when he learned it was technically incorrect and switched to “I am fine.”)

Anyway. Which of these is correct? Both, actually, although well should only be used when you are referring your state of health. Check out this post by The Grammar Girl, or this one from GrammarBook for the reasons why.

Bad vs. badly?

Do you feel bad or badly? Bad is actually correct, because as noted above, you should use an adjective when it follows a verb of sense or appearance. Using badly would imply you are not very accomplished at feeling, which might be true but probably isn’t what you meant. Check out this humorous post from The Grammar Girl (again) for a better explanation, and note especially her comment that an easy way to determine which one to use is to substitute the word am for feel (or, presumably, for another sense/appearance verb). If it sounds funny using am, use the other one. For example:

I feel badly.
I am badly. Um, no.
I look bad.
I am bad. Okay.

Adverbs in dialogue tags

These show up entirely too often in the work of new writers. Adverbs in dialogue tags can be a sign of telling rather than showing. For example, you can write, “OMG!” she said loudly. Loudness, however, is implied by the exclamation point, so you don’t necessarily need a dialogue tag at all, but if you really, really want one, “OMG!” she yelled would be stronger, as it would show rather than tell.

This is not to say you can never use adverbs in dialogue tags. For example, “Thank you,” she said softly is perfectly acceptable (although “Thank you,” she whispered would be better–show, don’t tell).

I do have strong feelings on dialogue tags–a 12 hour car ride to Missouri listening to Magic Tree House books on tape will change your opinion on them, trust me–but that’s a subject for another post.

For more about adverbs, check out these links:

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs
http://writinginwonderland.blogspot.com/2011/04/annoying-adverbs.html
http://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/list-of-adverbs.html
https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/537/02/
http://writedivas.com/quick-tips-adverbial-dialogue-tags/
http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/08/using-adverbs-in-dialogue-tags-matter-style-or-sign-of-timidity.html

What do you think? Adverbs–friend or foe?

Grumpish about Grammar

This post is very late. I was in a super bad mood last Sunday and couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write, and I was too busy reading contest entries anyway.

Back in the spring I volunteered to serve as a first round judge in several contests. I actually love judging contests, but when I volunteered I stupidly failed to realize that all of the entries were due back in the same week. Nevertheless, I was happy to do it–it is great fun to read the entries and to help a writer (often a brand-new writer) learn a bit more about craft, and I never fail to learn something myself. Sometimes the entries are absolutely wonderful and truly a joy to read. Other times, not so much. This year, I had far more not-so-much entries than wonderful ones. Most of the entries I read had a great plot–original, interesting, and fun. Unfortunately, many of them were also riddled with errors in grammar and punctuation. Some had clearly not even been proofread, and were full of typographical errors and spelling mistakes.

As a result of this experience, I have spent the last few days wondering why writers would enter a contest without dealing with at least some of these problems. It is important to realize that a contest is, in some ways, a trial query. Most contests have agents and/or editors serving as final round judges. If you final, you get your work in front of one of them. If she likes it, she may request a partial manuscript, or even a full. And sometimes–as I can gratefully attest–an editor buys your book or an agent agrees to represent you. Why, then, would you not make your manuscript the very best it can be before submitting it? Especially because contests cost money?

Now, I will admit that the first time I entered a contest I had no idea what I was doing, and it is certainly possible that some of the writers I judged were in a similar place in their writing careers. My entry had many, many craft errors, but it had been carefully proofread. I learned a lot from the judges in that contest, and in my critiques of the entries I reviewed in the last couple of weeks, I tried to do the same for those writers.

My point here is two-fold: First, if you are an author, especially a published author, consider donating your time and expertise to juIMG_3137dge a contest. You will make a huge difference in a writer’s life, and you will learn something too.

Second, if you are a writer wishing to enter a contest, polish that manuscript! Proofread it–do not rely on spell check alone. Check your grammar. If you need to brush up on grammar rules, do so. Pick up a copy of Strunk and White. Go online–there are a lot of sites which offer help on grammar issues. For example, I like the Grammar Girl for short and sweet tips. There’s Grammarly, which scans your text for grammar and punctuation. (I’ve never used it, but it gets good reviews.) From the Write Angle has blog posts about grammar, craft, querying, and a bunch of other good stuff. Or just Google “grammar” and see what you get. Once you have these basics down, it’s much easier to focus on the craft–all those things that make you a better writer.

I’ve decided to stop whining and do something to help (hopefully). Once a month, starting next week, I’ll do a post on issues I’ve spotted in manuscripts, or things I’ve been curious about. If any of you have a grammar or craft question you’d like me to discuss, or if you’re interested in doing a guest post about your grammar pet peeve, or if you are better than I am at coming up with catchy names for my grammar posts (because honestly, who isn’t better at that than I am?), leave a comment here or drop me a line at marinmcginnis@yahoo.com.

 

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