Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

And Cake! / Blog

New great books to read! Plus cake!

FAIR GAME finally arrived. Yay! It only took SIX DAYS instead of two, but hey, I don’t expect that will happen very often, and Amazon did give me a $5 coupon, so I can’t complain.

Anyway, of course I enjoyed it — I always enjoy Patricia Briggs’ werewolf books. The bad guy was more than a tad obvious, but it’s not like I was reading it for the mystery, right? And Charles’ problem seemed a little too easily resolved. But I liked Anna’s attitude when she was in trouble at the end. Good for her, not being a victim.

I have to say, if I’d been on that jury, I’d have hung it till Kingdom Come before I let that guy off for torturing and raping and murdering dozens of people. Are you kidding me? So I’m not sure I believe in the jury verdict, although of course Briggs needed to do it that wa if she wanted to do the next bit, which, whoa, that ending certainly throws a HUGE spanner in the gears. Wow.

Okay! On to the cake!

It was Dad’s birthday a few days ago, and this chocolate-peanut-butter cake is what I made. I combined a couple of recipes and then fiddled around a bit to make this one. Dad says that as he’s gotten older, he’s stopped liking really intense chocolate, so I deliberately toned the chocolate down, using a little less cocoa than indicated for the cake and semisweet instead of bittersweet for the icing. And he loves peanut butter. This cake came out REALLY good, with a great moist crumb and just the right amount of peanut buter. I admit that whenever I happened to stroll through Mom’s kitchen, I would sneak another little tiny slice.

There really aren’t any eggs in this cake, so don’t think I left ’em out accidentally. The vegetable oil provides the moisture and fat and the baking soda give it lift. This cake is from Bon Appetit Jan 2009, except for the peanut butter cups, which are my addition. (Why, yes, I have hundreds of interesting magazine recipes indexed so I can find ones I’m interested in when I want to. Why do you ask?) (This one is filed under Fancy Cakes, of course.)

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Cake

3 C all purpose flour
2 C sugar
2/3 C cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 C water
2/3 C veg oil
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 tsp vanilla
8 oz peanut butter cups, all but five or so chopped.

This is a super easy cake, really a one-bowl cake. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine the water, oil, vinegar and vanilla and whisk into flour mixture, whisking until smooth. Pour most of the batter into two 9″ cake pans that you have lined with circles of parchment paper. Sprinkle the chopped peanut butter cups over and then spoon the rest of the batter over the candy. Bake at 350 degrees for 24-28 minutes, until a tester comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool 10 minutes and turn out cakes onto racks. Cool completely. Obviously it’s fine if the surface of the cakes aren’t smooth because of the peanut butter cups — which mine weren’t — because you’re going to frost the cake anyway.

Now, I made the frosting based on a totally different recipe, and then fiddled with that, thus:

Chocolate Peanut Butter Frosting

8 oz semisweet chocolate — the recipe said milk chocolate, but come on, are you kidding?
4 oz cream cheese — I added this to help thicken the frosting
1 C cream — without the cream cheese, to me, the frosting seemed too thin.
2/3 C peanut butter — the recipe specified 1/2 C but I put in more than that.
1 C powdered sugar — the recipe didn’t call for any additional sugar, but Dad likes sweeter frosting.

Put all frosting ingredients in a microwavable bowl and microwave, stirring frequently, until everything is melted enough that you can whisk until it’s smooth. I found it necessary to chill the frosting for half an hour or an hour before frosting the cake — sorry, I didn’t time the chilling.

Frost the cake. There! All done! Except go get those few reserved peanut butter cups, cut them in halves or quarters, and use them to decorate the cake. Birthday candles optional.

This made a bit more frosting than necessary. Either slather it on or, hey, just eat the extra with a spoon. It’s quite good and not too sweet despite the extra sugar. Mmm.

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Spring has thoroughly sprung!

Which is fitting, because, after all, it IS spring break. I plan to write 50+ pp of something but I’m not prepared to talk about that yet. I did get 10 pp done today. (That’s 3400 words if you think in words.) It wasn’t even hard. I mean, I spend a lot of time still just sitting in the puppy room keeping an eye on Kenya, so hey! Might as well get some work done, right?

I did get the peas planted today, though. Also beets and daikon radishes. (Mom kept an eye on Kenya for me.) Tomorrow, more seeds! Not sure what till I shuffle through the packets and see what I have set out for this spring.

Also, I did take time to walk around the arboretum. (I mean my personal arboretum, here, not an official one — it’s a fenced acre-and-a-half where I try to keep design principles in mind as I plant stuff. Trees and shrubs and tough flowers that are not likely to be bothered by dogs crashing through them. Or not too bothered. So, here’s what I found in bloom today: The black pussy willow (brand new, just knee high, but very promising). The star magnolia, saucer magnolia, magnolia ‘Ann’, and the loebneri magnolia — yay for magnolias, and no frost likely before they’re done! Yet to come, I have a Magnolia sieboldii and a Yulan magnolia and a big (well, big compared to the others) southern magnolia. Plus I ordered Magnolia ‘Butterfly’ for this spring. You can probably tell I have a thing for magnolias.

Also the apricots and J. plums in the orchard are flowering like mad, plus the daffodils, crocuses, and vinca minor. I’m sure forsythia is blooming, but I don’t have any. But I do have Cornus mas, and that is blooming. Little bitty plants, so not much of a show yet.

Also! Now that I’m less nervous about the puppy (though of course things can go wrong even yet!), but time to think about names. Show names and call names. It’s my G litter, so G names. I was talking to a friend about poor Kenya’s disaster and the one puppy we got, and she proposed Anara Give Me A Break, which is funny and perfectly suitable for a show name. I’m also thinking of:

Golden Rule
Grace Note
Guilder Rose
Ganache (I’ve been baking)
Gaiety
Gloryflower
Gilliflower
Gingersnap

Or even a human name! Not, however, anything you would probably name your daughter today. Something like:

Gwenhwyfar (though that’s kind of tragic with all the King Arthur connotations), or
Gwenaelle (which means ‘blessed’ or ‘generous’)

Or something with a fantasy tone, like Galadriel.

No idea what I’ll actually call the puppy. I’m not too keen on Gay or Gwennie or Goldie (ick!) or even Grace or Gil. Just have to think about it.

Tomorrow — ten more pages! Plus WHEN is Patricia Briggs’ new book going to arrive? It should have been here DAYS ago. I’m peeved: what the heck is Amazon Prime for if it’s going to take five days (or more) for a book to arrive? Next internet stop, Amazon, so I can complain.

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Puppy update and historical novels

First! I retired the feeding tube and threw the rest of the formula away FOUR DAYS AGO. Yay! The puppy is absolutely thriving. She’s gaining an ounce a day – and think about that for a moment: when a six ounce puppy gains an ounce in 24 hours,her weight has gone up by a whopping 16%. Wow.

Anyway, a healthy puppy is supposed to double its weight in 7 to 10 days, and Little Puppy G has done exactly that. She was 4.25 oz at the time of the section and today, seven days later, she is 8.5 oz. She is now the proper size for a newborn puppy, only fatter. There should be a picture up on my other website (www.anaracavaliers.com) in the next day or so if you’re curious. Also, just in case you have a burning desire to know this, puppies are basically out of danger when they reach three weeks (Or I expect three weeks and five days for my preemie), though since I’m not sure this one got sufficient colostrum, in her case I won’t be really happy till she’s had her first vaccination. I usually name them and register them they’re four weeks old.

Now! I love really good historical novels, which are just like fantasies, only, you know, without the magic. And my favorite historical writer is Gillian Bradshaw. Anybody want to weigh in with a really good historical author?

Bradshaw mostly sets her books in the classical era. My favorites are A BEACON AT ALEXANDRIA, THE SAND RECKONER, and CLEOPATRA’S HEIR, but I love nearly all her books, except if she’s the one who wrote that Arthurian trilogy early on in her career, I didn’t like that, but hey, can’t hold an early trilogy against a great author forever. The thing about Bradshaw is that she softens the attitudes of her main characters enough to make them sympathetic to modern sensibilities while still managing to hold onto the flavor of a substantially more brutal era. (I didn’t make that up; my brother-the-history-expert pointed it out.) Great characterization, good plots, great writing, and the occasional scene that sends shivers down your spine. I’m thinking here of a climactic scene in CLEOPATRA’S HEIR.

Anyway, just read IMPERIAL PURPLE, and although it didn’t unseat one any of the ones in my top three, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Also! I have finally managed to get some work of my own done, too. This is wholly due to Kenya settling down a bit and her puppy becoming more robust. Should be possible to really get ahead on some project or other over spring break, which technically starts next week although of course I stayed home all last week with the puppy. The weather’s too beautiful to stay in with a laptop, except that I’m stuck in here to keep an eye on the puppy anyway, so that’s useful even if I’m dying to grab a couple of dogs and hit the hiking trails. Hopefully I will be able to post a tidbit from this particular WIP in the next week or so.

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Recent reading . . . and puppy update

So, first! Glad to say that I haven’t tube-fed the puppy for twenty-four hours and in that time she gained 3/4 oz all by her own efforts! Whew! I wouldn’t want to say that I’m now confident she’ll make it, because that would be quite the overstatement. But I will say, if nothing else goes wrong, she should make it. Technically she is now at term, because born one day early is considered full term. She does look better. And she is almost as big as Adora’s puppies were when they were born. I won’t provide a list of the things that could still go wrong, though, because a) it is a long list and would make for tedious typing and b) not very cheerful to dwell on anyway, right?

Now! Actually I have been doing a little writing, in fits and starts, when Kenya and the puppy are settled. Still straightening out the beginning of the Ottoman-ish adult fantasy. Thought I’d be done with that part by now, but hey, distraction and sleeplessness kind of interfere with writing. Not nearly as much as being distraught because of a dying puppy, though, so don’t think I’m complaining!

I’ve also been reading, naturally. Somebody was recently telling me large chunks of her life story — you know what I mean — and of course depending on the person that can be a horrifically dull kind of conversation. Not this time! It’s a story filled with major ups and serious whoa-that’s-awful downs and — most important — meaning, which is so often what life stories lack, right? I made a note to lend her one of my favorite books from last year, THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, by Jandy Nelson. I went so far as to get it off the shelf and bring it upstairs so I won’t forget. Then, of course, I read it again myself. It’s still amazing. But it also made me think about writing style and sort of connected back to the idea of purple prose. Because strained metaphors and stupid similes are sometimes considered to be another hallmark of purple prose, right?

I mean, SHATTER ME, by Tahereh Mafi, had quite a bit of buzz built up, and then I read a review of it by The Book Smugglers (just google it, okay? Remember, major bandwith issues when I post from home) and just decided right there not to read it. And one of things that most bothered Thea and Ana about SHATTER ME was the use of similes and metaphors that didn’t make sense. Like “I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, as they cover me in something that feels like the absence of courage.” and “Hundreds of thousands of seconds pass and I can’t stop dying.”

And that was interesting, that those phrases struck The Book Smugglers as wrong and awkward and ridiculous rather than as, say, poetic. Because it was Ana’s extremely positive review of THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE that made me get that book even though I virtually never read contemporary YA, and there are plenty of metaphors and similes in that book, and they are wonderful. So then yesterday when I was re-reading THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, I found myself really noticing the incredibly apt similes and metaphors that add so much to this book. Like:

My voice sounds creaky, unused, like bats might fly out of my mouth.

Grief is a house where the chairs have forgotten how to hold us, the mirrors how to reflect us, the walls how to contain us. Grief is a house that disappears every time someone knocks on the door or rings the bell.

When I’m with him, there’s someone with me in my house of grief, someone who knows its architecture as I do.

Dusk splatters pink and orange across the sky, beginning its languorous summer stroll. I hear the river through the trees, sounding like possibility.

I can’t shove the dark out of my way.

I look into his sorrowless eyes and a door in my heart blows open. And when we kiss, I see that on the other side of that door is sky.

Nothing has been like this, nothing has made me feel like I do right now walking up the hill to Joe’s, like I have a window in my chest where sunlight is pouring in.

When Joe plays his horn I fall out of my chair and onto my knees. When he plays all the flowers swap colors and years and decades and centuries of rain pour back into the sky.

Our tongues have fallen madly in love and gotten married and moved to Paris.

Now, some of those are from actual poetry, because the protagonist scatters poetry all through the book. Which is not just an affectation, btw, because those scattered bits of poetry wind up being really important to the plot. But the thing is, every one of those similes and metaphors exactly fits the story and the moment. They are an integral part of the voice of the protagonist. Which is a fabulous voice, because this is a virtually flawless book.

So what makes the similes and metaphors work for THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE and not (remembering that I haven’t read it and am not personally judging its use of language) SHATTER ME?

And I think that connects with the purple prose thing: if you do it well, it sounds like poetry; if you do it wrong, it sounds ridiculous.

And I think what makes it work is aptness. I think you need to have readers notice your simile not because of the poetry in it — or not just because of the poetry in it — but because it is perfectly apt. You want readers to say: “I would never in a million years have put it like that but THAT IS SO PERFECT, that is exactly what it’s really like.”

And that is exactly my response as a reader to THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE.

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Sadness! Hope! Major lack of sleep!

Okay, Kenya was due to have puppies this coming Thursday, right? And I know the exact due date because, along with all the other enormously expensive things I did to ensure a decent litter of top-quality puppies — I would be scared to calculate what proportion of my actual income gets spent on the dogs — I ALSO did an LH test as well as progesterone tests to make sure I would in fact know.

Instead, she had an emergency c-section this past Saturday. You will notice that that is five days early — six if you count the Saturday. The gestation period for a dog is nine weeks, so you can see that five or six days early is VERY early. Usually puppies that premature do not survive. There was one survivor at the time of the section, a nicely marked girl puppy. Happily, she does not look quite as premature as expected given how early she was. She weighed 4.25 oz at birth and has been gaining a little and then losing a little ever since, so she is now 4.375 oz. Maybe she’ll keep going up. Maybe she’ll make it. And, of course, maybe not. Kenya’s milk has come in, I would say finally except actually having the milk come in this fast when the section was that early isn’t bad at all. So maybe the baby will start gaining better now. It would be nice if I could stop tube-feeding her every two hours around the clock. She’d be much more likely to thrive if she proved strong enough to nurse adeaquately on her own, especially since her mother’s milk is just much better than any formula, and why is it that we don’t seem capable of developing REALLY good milk substitutes, anyway?

I’d add a picture, only do you know how slow the connection is from my house? Slow enough that I have to try a dozen times or so to pull up the wordpress login page — if I can get on at all. It took (literally!) an hour this afternoon to sign in. So if this puppy lives, I’ll add a picture or two later, but right now pictures are just out of the question. In the meantime, just take my word for it that she is very small and looks more like a little hamster than a puppy.

So! What with the feeding every two hours and the constant hovering to make sure the baby doesn’t get chilled and that Kenya doesn’t step on her, it’s not much use trying to do anything actually creative. However! This also means spring break just started a week early for me. So the odds that writing will occur is VERY high as I get more and more bored. Unless I get more and more stressed instead, but I will optimistically hope that the puppy starts to thrive and that I start to trust Kenya to take care of her. Then I will definitely be bored rather than stressed, which would be GREAT.

In the meantime, I’m rereading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife quadrilogy. I’ve read it several times and it’s just one of those comfortable series that I can enjoy with part of my mind while really thinking about other things, so it’s perfect for days like these.

Okay! Posting will be light what with the connectivity issues, but hopefully the next post will sound more cheerful!

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Purplish Hues

The OED declares that purple prose is writing that is “too elaborate or ornate.” But how ornate is too ornate?

Wikipedia says that purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Yet I definitely notice Patricia McKillip’s beautiful sentences; I might very well say her prose draws attention to itself. But, I mean, in a good way! So if you notice ornate prose but enjoy it, does that mean the prose is not purple or does it mean that you have terrible taste because look at you, admiring all that purple?

The wikipedia entry goes on to say that purple prose is “evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.” So then, I do agree that if you can spot a writer’s attempts to manipulate you, that is definitely a flaw whether the prose is ornate or not. For example, I think ALL of Steven King’s recent books suffer from this problem: the character you meet early on who is PARTICULARLY likable is ALWAYS going to die. In fact, I have pretty much stopped reading Steven King because the SUPER OBVIOUS manipulative thing is so annoying.

Did you know there is a site called Novel Writing Help? I have to say that I have my doubts about whether anybody is going to learn to write novels from a website, or indeed from any teacher, but this bit was interesting:

“. . . their [beginners’] prose is horribly overwritten — they use too many adjectives and adverbs, they say something in a paragraph they could have said in a sentence, they describe the setting too much and way too fancifully.”

Which instantly raises the question: how many adjectives and adverbs are too many? When are you describing the setting “too much” or “too fancifully”? I mean, we are not all going for stripped-down bare-bones simplicity in our writing, are we? Would anybody actually find this advice helpful?

It seems to me that if you’re using formal, elevated language and a poetic style and doing a fair bit of description, and if you do it well, then you are probably writing high fantasy. If you do it badly, then you’re writing purple prose.

How can you tell which?

Well, there’s a post on this subject from back in 2009, by Scott Bailey at a site called The Literary Lab. I really like this post! The examples are great! I ESPECIALLY love the re-written “Hills Like White Elephants” example. HERE is a really good example of “too many adjectives and adverbs”! AND “describing the setting too much”!

And even though Bailey is offering advice to beginners, such as:

“Sometimes writers, especially new writers, feel that in order to write in a writerly or serious or studious manner, they must put on their Prose Stylist hats and churn out pages of paragraphs that are as fancy as possible. Every phrase must paint a 1,000-word picture for the reader, and plain language must be chased off the page. Because, they feel, good writing is elaborate. This is a mistaken idea.”

somehow the tone of his advice does not come seem condescending, which is a nice trick.

And the examples he uses are just way more helpful than saying DON’T USE ADVERBS which is too often the advice that’s actually given.

Besides, I remember vividly hearing this advice while I was writing my first novel: DON’T USE ADVERBS. And you know what I did? I went and took a Patricia McKillip novel off my shelf and looked to see whether she used adverbs. Then I quit worrying about adverbs because hey, if she could do it, I could do it. (I actually do use fewer now, but way way more than the NO ADVERB crowd advises.)

Also from the comments of that post, which are worth reading through:

“Some writers (Proust, James, Dickens, Byatt, Wolfe, Tolstoy) create thick prose, with lots of layers of meaning and complex sentences. But every word counts; every word means something important and the cumulative weight of that dense prose is beautiful. Other writers simply lard on all sorts of extraneous junk in an attempt (usually quite innocent) to look like serious writers, and because that’s not their own writerly voice, it comes across as clumsy
and just not good.”

Which seems right to me: it’s not that you can’t do ornate, but that it looks fake if you’re, you know, faking it.

And also hitting that exact notion, one more link! I really got a kick out of this one, by Dave King.

Dave King there is also talking about how maybe you’ve gone purple if you’re describing things the pov protagonist wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t describe or wouldn’t care about, which is another interesting take on the problem with purple.

King also hits the idea that you can’t fake a formal style and trying to write like Tolkien when you’re not Tolkien may lead you into trouble, which gets back to my personal view, which as I said is that if you are doing ornate well, you’re writing high fantasy, and if you’re doing it badly, you’re writing purple prose.

Who does ornate very very very well?

Obviously, Patricia McKillip, right? Who else?

Here are some I’d choose:

Sharon Shinn (sometimes), e.g. THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE
Guy Gavriel Kay
Juliet Marillier

By an amazing coincidence, all of the above are favorite authors of mine! Also, here’s one you might not have heard of: Dahlov Ipcar’s A DARK HORN BLOWING.

Here’s the first paragraph of the second chapter of Ipcar’s book:

“When I stepped into the shallow water and into the black boat, it seemed that my husband, my baby, my home, and all I had left but a moment before had fallen so far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the black boat and my whole world faded away. High on the curved prow the carved dragon’s head turned and flickered its tongue at me. The small man put down his dark horn, and the long boat slid out into the current and glided
silently into the darkness with never a breath of wind or a sail or an oar to move her. She slipped through the black water that was so still it scarcely rippled at the boat’s passing.”

Notice that nearly every noun has an adjective? Does it bother you? My answer: no. It sounds just fine. It sounds, in fact, dreamy and evocative. In a good way. The repetition (“I stepped into”) and the simple phrases and the dreamy images (the dragon’s head turning, the boat gliding forward), the use of three-part lists (husband, baby, home; wind, sail, oar) — it all adds up to a beautiful style that may be noticeably poetic and flowery, but — I repeat myself here — in a good way. The casual reader may in fact NOT notice this style, noticing style may be more a writer’s thing. Anyway, I bet the reader isn’t going to stop and analyze this prose, but is going to be led by the style into the fairy-tale-like story that ensues.

And being led into the story is the whole point. If the prose style does THAT job, it’s probably not purple.

UPDATE: Elaine T. from the comments did a hilarious job reworking the Ipcar paragraph above! Here’s her version. Enjoy!

“When I timidly stepped into the shadow glimmering shallow water and into the ebon black boat, it seemed that my beloved husband, my dear baby, my comfortable home, and all I had left but a short moment before had fallen so terribly far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the jet black boat and my whole beloved world now faded away into shadow. . . ”

I especially like the “timidly”. That is exactly the sort of adverb that seems to me to clutter up purple prose. (Not that I have anything against the world “timidly” as such.)

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Whew!

Just finished the powerpoint presentation for the class I’m doing at the Master Gardener symposium on Saturday. This Saturday. Don’t think I’ve ever cut down to the wire on something like this before.

Seventy-six slides plus a separate handout because that’s too many slides to print out as a handout. The topic is Gardening To Stop Traffic. I hear they cut it off at 41, which is capacity for the classroom. (I know. Forty-one seems like a strange number to me, too.) Actually, very basic topics like “Composting” are extremely popular this year — I think the bad economy has given lots of people a shove toward growing their own produce. Which, when the August drought hits, they may view with less enthusiasm.

And, no, I definitely do not put a lecture on powerpoint slides and then read the slides to the audience. What a horrifically boring presentation that would be. I’d walk out on a presenter who did that. (I say that, but I’m probably too polite to actually do that. Probably.)

The slides are for pictures and brief notes to help me remember what I meant to say. My favorite combo? At least in MO, dogwoods, regular old-fashioned Vanhoutte spirea, Narcissus ‘Actaea’, and Cerastium, which all bloom along with pink peonies and late pink tulips. If you’ve got quite a few dogwoods in one area and then a whole swoosh of spirea, it’s like this massive blizzard with pink accents. Just breathtaking. It’s really hard to take good pictures, though, with a small camera like mine.

Okay! Now that the gardening thing is done and under control, BACK to writing! But maybe not tonight. It’s eight and I don’t think I’m in the mood (I was in the mood this morning, drat it, and of course it didn’t last till I had time). Since I’m not on a deadline, no need to force it — tomorrow will do.

Even if all I end up doing tonight is playing this keen mahjong game that turns out to be on this new laptop, which is entirely possible.

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And Cake! / Blog

A new (-ish) project . . . and cake!

So, a whole week since I finished revising MOUNTAIN. So naturally I got bored. Even though I was reading some really good books. Maybe there was some guilt in there too, the kind of not-working-just-reading-is-this-allowed kind of guilt that is (I suppose) just an intrinsic component of life. But mainly I was bored.

Plus, I needed to try actually working on my new laptop.

Which only lets me play music one artist at a time rather than selecting (say) all the instrumental and letting me randomize a couple hundred songs in one playlist. Which I hate hate hate not being able to do. I suppose it will be possible to find a different music program. Anyway!

Picked up an old project. Not very old, actually. A year or two? It’s fifty-plus pages of an adult secondary world fantasy based around an Ottoman-ish society. See, I realized that it would be better if I took some of the recent backstory and turned it into story! It’ll start faster! It’ll pull the reader in better! It’ll encourage the reader to immediately become involved with the main character! Who is this really neat character because she . . . well, never mind, that would be a bit of a spoiler.

So, rewriting the beginning of the story. Figure that’ll take the rest of the week or thereabouts, after which, I don’t know. I might continue and write another chapter or two of this book, or I might bang the beginning into shape and then put it aside again and go on to something else. We’ll see.

Oh, but maybe I’ll post the opening scene, though. I don’t think any eventual editor would care, do you?

Now, the cake!

I made this last week for someone who doesn’t eat chocolate (I know, right?) and WHOA did people rave. I got comments ranging from “wonderful!” and “so light” to “best cake I ever ate in my life!” so I thought I would toss the recipe out here and let other people try it if they like. It’s no harder than making any other layer cake, but it is a little different because the butter you would usually use is replaced by cream.

So!

Apricot Almond Cream Cake

3 eggs, room temp (you can submerge them in hot water for ten minutes to bring them to room temp, and it’s worth doing if you want a really light cake.)
1 1/2 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 3/4 C cake flour — the recipe didn’t specify, but it matters.
1 C ground almonds — not all the way ground into flour, but coarsely ground.
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 C heavy cream, whipped

8 oz cream cheese
1 C sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp almond extract (the recipe says 1 tsp and everybody loved it, but I’d reduce the almond extract if I did it again)
1 1/2 C heavy cream, whipped

10 oz jar apricot preserves, warmed

1/2 C. slivered almonds, toasted (you can toast the almonds while the oven is hot from baking the cake; about four minutes and then shake the baking pan, then about two more minutes and pour the golden almond slivers into a bowl to cool).

Make the cake: beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla until “thick and lemon colored”, which was about 3 minutes, maybe a little less. Combine the dry ingredients. Whip the cream (you know it’ll whip better if you use a chilled glass bowl and chilled beaters, right?) (PLEASE DO NOT USE WHIPPED TOPPING, or if you do, don’t complain to me if people don’t like your cake as much as they loved mine.)

Beat the dry ingredients into the cake batter alternately with the whipped cream; three additions of the flour mixture and two additions of cream.

Pour into two 9-inch cake pans and bake at 350 degrees for 22-28 minutes, until a toothpick comes out with a very few moist crumbs sticking to it. Cool ten minutes and turn the cakes out onto racks. (If you line the cake pans with circles of parchment paper and grease the paper, the cakes will definitely turn out every time.) Go write a book or play with the puppies while the cake layers cool completely.

Make the frosting: soften the cream cheese (I do this in the microwave) and beat in the sugar, salt, and almond flavoring. Whip the cream and beat that in on the lowest speed.

Now, halve the cake layers horizontally. Here’s the easiest way to do that: get eight or so toothpicks and carefully poke them into a cake layer around the equator. Take a long piece of ordinary floss and weave it over one toothpick and under the next all the way around the cake, so that the toothpicks will hold it right around the equator. Garotte the cake with the floss, which will make a beautiful even horizontal cut right through the cake and is kind of fun besides.

Okay, now place one cake layer on the serving platter and frost with a cup or so of frosting. Place another layer on top and spread with apricot preserves. Then cake, then more frosting, then the last layer of cake. Now ignore the top of the cake and frost the sides, but reserve a cup or so of frosting. Get the sides smoothed out pretty well. Then spread apricot preserves over the top, but not necessarily right out to the very edges. If you have a decorating bag with a star tip, pipe a decorative edge around the cake and then on the platter around the bottom of the cake as well. If you don’t, then you can use a doubled-sheet of plastic wrap, poke a hole in the plastic, and pipe using that, but of course without a star tip it won’t be as decorative. Anyway! Once you have edged the top of the cake, sprinkle the toasted slivered almonds all over the apricot preserves on the top.

Chill for a couple of hours or overnight. Bring to room temp before serving. Mmmm! Everybody will love it.

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A huge contrast emerges in recent reading . . .

So, while I was revising my mss. recently, I re-read the Honor Harrington series. You know, David Weber’s nine-book military SF series. (I think it’s more than nine, now, but the original series was nine books.)

And then by chance, when I was done with the first ms. and taking a brief break before starting to work with the second, the books I happened to take off the TBR pile were Tanya Huff’s VALOR’S CHOICE and THE BETTER PART OF VALOR, which are also military SF. (And then instantly ordered the other three in this series.)

Well. Quite a difference.

I should say, I quite liked the Honor Harrington series the first time I read it. I know it’s a popular series. I still sorta kinda like it, but the reason I was reading it WHILE revising was that those books just aren’t compelling enough to distract me from doing my own work. Part of that is because I’d read them before, but a lot of it is that they just, well, aren’t that compelling. How do Tanya Huff’s books compare? Well, thus:

a) Infodumping. Weber’s series has huge, frequent infodumps. The classic kind where the action is totally stopped while the author forces characters to think about or discuss history and technology in GREAT AND EXHAUSTIVE (and exhausting) DETAIL. Huff doesn’t do this. Her background is worked in much more neatly in much smaller bits. Plus there’s just less of it.

b) Points of view. Weber has many, many points of view, including bad-guy points of view. Huff has one main point of view character. Other characters occasionally get very minimal point-of-view sections, but those sections are truly very minimal. That means it’s much easier to get emotionally attached to Huff’s protagonist because you’re not constantly being dragged off into somebody else’s pov.

c) Writing style. Weber’s style is stiff and clunky. (Sorry! It’s true!) Huff’s prose is smoother and unobtrusive.

d) Dialogue. Weber’s dialogue is stiff, predictable, and kind of boring. Huff’s dialogue sounds much more realistic and much snappier and is just more fun.

e) Believability of background and world and situations that happen in the books: Weber’s world really seems quite plausible. Huff’s . . . not so much.

f) Main character: Weber’s is the commander of the ship. Huff’s is a sergeant. A sergeant’s pov is so cool!

I hadn’t previously read many books by Tanya Huff and the ones I read didn’t stand out for me. These sure do! The four Valor stories I’ve read so far are SO GOOD and very exciting. Every one of them is excellent and I totally recommend ’em if you happen to like military SF. I’m really looking forward to the fifth . . . probably I’ll start it tonight even though I *SHOULD* be figuring out how to get this new laptop to do the things I want it to do.

I’m also moving the rest of Tanya Huff’s books to my pick-these-up-sometime list, ’cause if these are this good, then hey, definitely more interested in seeing what else Huff has been doing.

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