nalohop's blog

Canada Seminar at Harvard U, USA, today!

OK, my talk is printed, readings selected, directions found. Canada Seminar at Harvard U, 4 pm today, September 16, 2013! (Which is also my brother's birthday. Happy birthday, bro.)

Hosted by George Elliott Clarke.

Blackheart Man progress; plot, plot, plot

I'm having a pretty good writing day. Still having it even though it's evening time, which is rare for me. I've slowed down, but I'm still going. I've put the actual rewrite on the novel aside in favour of doing an in-depth planning exercise for it before I begin again. It's not my usual way of working. I can be impatient to get to the actual writing part. So I tend to write until I get stuck, plot a little way ahead, cuss, slash, excise, add, revise, fret, panic, rinse, re-read, repeat.

But I'm finding this new way illuminating. Essentially, I've sketched out the wants/needs/obstacles of each significant character, and their own story arcs. Now I'm taking each line of story arc and interweaving it into one document, listed as much as possible in the order of the general events I've already established for the story. It's helping me deepen my characters and their motivations, which in turn leads to intriguing plotting possibilities. I've used a different colour of text or highlighting for each character, so I can see at a glance where I've used them. That's helping me see which characters I could stand to employ more.

It occurred to me this afternoon while walking back from my office that I could create a similar visual map for settings and motifs. Maybe I could apply the technique to teaching creative writing. If I had students map out the stories we study in this way, it might yield some useful ways of perceiving and talking about structure. I'd have to be careful not to let them start seeing the map as programmatic. It's more like a sorting mechanism that lets you see what you have so that you can then proceed to build something from it, choosing which building blocks to use and which not. Brilliance probably happens in the deviations from conformity, not in the unquestioning adherence to it.

Locus interview

The September 2013 issue of Locus Magazine contains an interview they did with me. Interview by Lila Groen Trombi, cover design by Francesca Myman, photo and pendant by David Findlay, dress by me. Here's an excerpt from the interview.

Yes, you bloody well can

In the past month, two budding writers have given me the same reason for not applying to introductory writing workshops they'd love to attend; they aren't good enough yet. I understand how this can happen. You're an unpublished writer, you're not sure whether your work has any merit, and you're not sure how to tell whether it does or not. You look at the lists of names of people who've attended these workshops and gone on to have successful careers, and some of them are writers whose work you love. You think, OMG, I don't dare apply; I'm nowhere near as good as any of those people!

But here's the kicker; neither were they, when they attended those workshops. They went there to learn. That's what a writing workshop is for. When I attended Clarion, a lot of my stories were hot messes, sometimes with the occasional pearl or two floating in the mire. (Hell, there are those who think my writing is still a hot mess.) A good workshop for beginners isn't there to shame you if your writing skills aren't what they could be. It's there to inspire and challenge you. Ideally, it's a space in which you can push yourself and fall because you took the courage to aim higher than your reach. I think of workshops for budding writers as places for writing badly precisely because you're trying out new skills. It's not pleasant to hear that you still don't have the knack of it. But in the workshop, there's room to keep trying. Saying "I can't apply to x workshop for non-published writers because I'm not good enough," boils down to, "I can't apply for school because I have a lot to learn." See the tautology there?

Blackheart Man, in the trenches

I've taken a break from (re)writing novel Blackheart Man to do some more plotting and planning of it. I'm coming up with some intriguing -- and challenging -- plot possibilities.

Gluten-free cornbread dessert pudding

A couple days ago, I made cornbread. It was pretty tasty, but we only managed to eat slightly more than half of it. I wrapped the remainder up and put it into the fridge. I meant to use it in subsequent meals, but, cold and hard as it was, I just wasn't feeling it any more. A few seconds in the microwave would have remedied both the coldness and the hardness. And yet.

Recipe, gluten-free cornbread with corn kernels and flaked coconut

I adapted this recipe from a 100% cornmeal cornbread recipe over on Plan to Eat. I removed the sugar, reduced the salt, added nutmeg/mace, fresh corn, and flaked coconut. Here's my version:

  • 1.75 cup coarse cornmeal (I've also used 1.25 cups cornmeal and half cup ground uncooked rice)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • half teaspoon salt (optional)
  • half teaspoon ground mace or grated nutmeg
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ear of corn or half cup corn kernels, frozen or canned (if canned, drain and discard liquid)
  • 1 handful flaked coconut, unsweetened
  • 2 cups milk (dairy or non-dairy)
  • 2 tablespoons liquid fat (e.g olive oil, melted butter, coconut butter or bacon grease)
  • Directions

  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease a 10″ cast iron skillet or an 8×8″ pan.
  • In a medium-sized bowl combine cornmeal, salt, milk and eggs. Whisk well with a fork. Let stand for 15 minutes, to soften cornmeal and allow it to absorb the milk.
  • If using an ear of corn, remove kernels by standing the ear on the stalk end and sliding a sharp knife along the length of the cob.
  • Stir liquid fat, corn kernels, mace/nutmeg and coconut flakes into the batter.
  • Quickly beat in baking powder. Pour batter into prepared pan and place in oven.
  • Bake 25-30 minutes or until a knife or toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the centre. Allow to cool before cutting.
  • Works well with butter, cheese, cold cuts, or marmalade.
  • Green plantain porridge

    Promised I'd post how I make green plantain porridge. You can also make this with green bananas. They both need to be actually unripe.

    Peel the plantains. I generally cut the tops and bottoms off, then score a couple of lengthwise slits in the skin and manually peel them away from the flesh. That doesn't always work with really green fruit. Push come to shove, you can just slice the skins off, sort of like you would with a potato.

    Once you've peeled them, grate them. I use the fine side of the grater.

    Put the grated plantain in a saucepan. Cover with water. Bring to a boil, then turn it down and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the plantain is cooked. It should be soft, about the texture of a boiled potato.

    Add milk. I use a non-dairy milk, such as almond or coconut.

    Add a pinch of salt and fresh-grated nutmeg and/or ginger to taste.

    Simmer, stirring often, until it has a consistency similar to oatmeal porridge. This part shouldn't take too long.

    To serve, I usually add brown sugar or some other sweetener, vanilla, and a dab of butter.

    Story conference

    Gonna make this brief, because I want to get back to writing. A couple days ago, I had a telephone story conference with my agent, Don Maass, about Blackheart Man, my novel-in-progress. We'd originally planned to do so in person over the course of a few days, but that didn't work out. So Skype it was. Don is one of the best book and writing doctors I know. In the course of a two-hour conversation, he helped me get at the heart of what Blackheart Man is about, diagnosed my writing practice and its strengths and challenges, and suggested a few practical strategies for knitting the story elements together and keeping the goal of each chapter top of mind as I write. I've spent the past couple of days making notes and replotting the novel. A lot is coming clear. I've had a bunch of insights about how to use scenes and plot points that were originally random. I've had ideas for new scenes, and I know why I want them. I can feel the story knitting together like a fractured bone, healing. So exciting! For the first time in a long time, my fingers are twitching to get at the story, rather than my having to force myself through reluctance and lack of volition. My brain chemistry may still make the going tough, but for now, I'm exhilarated. I have to run a few quick errands now -- you know, the usual daily round of self-maintenance stuff -- and then I'll be back to working on my novel. Can't wait.