Saturday, July 19, 2014

How to Make a Simple Sea Cake

I love decorative cakes, but alas, my imagination exceeds my skill. I wanted to make an incredible cake for my daughter's Under the Sea birthday party, but I needed one that was easy enough for me not to mess up. Too often I find myself the day of an event frantically trying to put together an impossible cake.

This cake was not only simple, but it looked fantastic. It was exactly what I wanted! 

If you want to make a cake like this, all you need is:

  • 2 boxes of white cake mix.*
  • frosting
  • blue food coloring
  • white chocolate
  • small crock pot, a microwave, or a double broiler
  • shells candy mold
  • a spoon
  • vanilla wafers
*I've tried making cake from scratch, and honestly, it doesn't taste all that different from cake in a box. I only use the Pillsbury cake with pudding mixed in; of all the boxed cakes I've tried, that's my favorite.

First, I add blue food coloring to the batter. Don't add the egg yolks to the batter or it will turn green. Cook the batter in four cake pans (or two at a time). Stack three of them on top of one another with frosting in between the layers. Since this was a 1st birthday party, I cut two circles in the fourth to make a smash cake for the baby.

Mix food coloring into the frosting until you get a pretty light blue color and spread it over the top half of the cake. It's easiest to pipe the frosting onto the cake and then spread it with a spatula instead of using only the spatula; you'll pick up less crumbs that way. You'll still pick up crumbs, though, so add a second layer afterwards. 

Mix more blue food coloring into the rest of the frosting to get a darker color and spread on the bottom half of the cake. Using the back of a spoon, make waves in the frosting. When you get to where the different colors of blue meet, blend them in a little bit.

Next, fill a ziplock bag with vanilla wafers and crush them until they're super fine and they look like sand. Line the plate the cake is on with the "sand." You can also pour sand on the top of the cake, if you like.

To make the shells, melt some white chocolate. My preferred method is to put the chocolate in a crock pot on low. That way the chocolate is always at the right temperature and I don't have to worry about it seizing up, and since I had to fill the candy molds three times, I didn't have to reheat it or heat it in shifts.

You can get candy molds in most cake decorating sections of grocery and craft stores, and they're pretty cheap. I found mine in my cupboard the day before the party. I still don't know how they got there.

Once you've poured the melted chocolate into the molds and let them cool in the fridge for ten minutes, arrange them on the cake however you like.

That's it! So easy, right? I had a bunch of extra chocolates so I arranged them on the table, and I added a real shell we found in Tonga to the table because it matched so well.

She loved her sea cake!

Friday, July 18, 2014

What Book Should Every Kid Study in School?

I love hearing what my readers have to say. It makes this blog feel more like a community. Starting now, I'm going to post questions for my readers to discuss.

Since this is my first time doing it, I'll start with something relatively simple.

In an interview with Sue Monk Kidd, someone asked what book she thinks every child should study in school. She said The Awakening. Since female liberation is a strong theme in all her work, I'm not surprised.

My pick is The Giver. Personally, I see a lot of value in youth reading Utopian and Dystopian literature (books about perfect and imperfect societies). It helps them stretch their minds past what they're used to and to view the world's many possibilities. I believe it makes them better voters and citizens when they can constructively think about ways to improve society.

That being said, I do NOT think The Hunger Games should be studied in school. Don't get me wrong, they're fantastic books for recreational reading, but they don't ask any hard questions. They help kids to enjoy reading. They don't teach them to think constructively.

What book do you think every child should study in school?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When Writing Feels Selfish

I've been working on my novel Voodoo Queen for over a year now, and I keep getting stuck. It boggles my mind because it's never happened to me before. I always believed writer's block stems from a lack of discipline and focus. If you sit in front of a blank screen long enough, eventually the words will come.

The mind is more complicated than that, and creativity is especially fickle. Sometimes interior things get in the way, like attitude and perspective. 

After tearing my hair out for a while, I've finally narrowed down on what is getting in my way:


It was easy to write when I was in school and my homework was done. It was easy to write when I had a full-time job that wasn't very demanding. Now I'm a homemaker with a 10-month-old baby, and when I take time to write, there are negative consequences. Dishes don't get done. Meals don't get cooked. Errands don't get run. My baby gets less attention.

How do I justify taking time out of my busy day to work on a book that might not go anywhere? I decided to work on my book just when I had extra time. Which was never.

I've made peace with the fact that my creativity doesn't let me simply sit down and write a chapter. If I restrict myself to just one project, I will get stuck every time. I have to be free to work on whatever comes to me, whether that be blogging, journal writing, working on a different book, or whatever.

I had three ideas that have really worked for me. First, if I plan my day around writing, I don't have to feel guilty because I know I'll have enough time for what's on my to-do list. Sometimes that means putting a thing or two off until tomorrow, but as long as I plan ahead, that isn't a problem.

Second, I do the thing on my list that are the least appealing first. There are certain jobs I'm going to make time for no matter what. Cooking dinner, for instance, or buying diapers. Then there are phone calls, home-improvement projects, and (sadly) my book that I can put off indefinitely. Those are the things I need to do first.

The most important thing, however, is to remember that all the writing I do is important. Even if I'm just fiddling with some poems. If I separate in my mind the writing that matters from the writing that doesn't, I'll get frustrated and blocked.

Every word I write matters... every word you write matters. If we could all just remember that, we can defeat our guilt.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Baby Shower: Cupcakes in the Garden

Back when I was pregnant, my sister threw me a lovely baby shower. We ended up working on it together because she was also pregnant and therefore too sick to do much of anything, much less plan a party!

The theme was Cupcakes in the Garden. We already had a lot of lovely garden-ish decorations, so we hardly spent any money. We bought pink boxes filled with candy for party favors, some silk flowers for a centerpiece, pink table cloths that we used as curtains for the entryway, and pink plates. We also had most of the food already, so I don't think the whole thing cost more than $25.

I had the idea to make a cupcake bar. We cooked a dozen each of four different kinds of cupcakes, make four different kinds of frosting, cut holes in the cupcakes for filling, and had lots of different toppings. 

Everyone went nuts over it. We made sure to have at least three cupcakes per person because everyone wanted to try several combinations! This would be great for a child's birthday party, too.

Cupcake Flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and spice.

Frosting Flavors: Chocolate, buttercream, strawberry, and peanut butter.

Fillings: Custard, pudding, mandarin oranges, strawberry jam, cooked blueberries, and chopped bananas.

Toppings: Chocolate, caramel, and strawberry syrup, maraschino cherries, nuts, milk and white chocolate chips, sprinkles, granola, and cinnamon mixed with sugar.

For the first game, we worked together to make Baby's First Alphabet Book. Each guest was given a page with a letter on it and crayons so they could draw something beginning with that letter. I love it and I will always treasure it. Then we filled out a questionnaire with wishes for baby, such as "I wish you learn," "I wish you always," etc. There's lots of them on Pinterest, but this is the one I used. 

Finally, we played one of my favorite shower games: Daddy Knows Best. The host asks the father several questions beforehand, such as "What part of motherhood is your wife most excited about" and "Who will change the most diapers," and the mother-to-be has to guess what he wrote.

We had so much fun throwing this shower that I wish one of my friends would get pregnant so I can throw another one!

Monday, May 26, 2014

I Hate it When Authors Say...

When a person says, "I have a degree in engineering," or, "I'm a doctor," you pretty much know that person's level of knowledge and experience. When someone says, "I'm a writer," you have no idea what you're dealing with. 

There are certain kinds of writers who -- while I value their talent and contribution to the art -- drive me nuts. They quite often use these phrases:

1. People will steal my work if I'm not careful.

You wish people would steal your work. This thinking is so egotistical to me. It's hard to get people to even read unpublished books, much less claim them.

I have a hard time believing theft of intellectual property is as big of an issue as some writers make it out to be. A friend of mine won't submit her work to an agent because she thinks the agent will steal it. Another person I know won't connect his computer to the internet because he's afraid of being hacked.

2. I don't believe in genres

Many authors want to work outside of the restrictions of genre rules, and that's a very pretty idea. It just doesn't work. Unless you're Tolkien and you invent a new, revolutionary way of writing, your story will fit into a genre whether you intend it to or not.

3. I don't read when I'm writing because I don't want authors to influence me

Actually, you do want other authors you influence you. That's how you learn to write. The key is to read so many authors that you don't imitate only one person's voice. Your style should be a collage of all your experiences, including books you read.

4. I'm a published author! My publisher is Lulu.

It's wonderful that self-publishing is an option for authors. Traditional publishing is stringent, demanding, and unlikely to yield results. Now we all have the freedom to put our work into book form. 

The thing is, anyone can get self-published. Anyone. It's not impressive, so quit acting like some kind of celebrity.

5. I was published when I was 18!

I appreciate when teenage writers are so driven, but most of us wrote books when we were 18. They all sucked (except for Christopher Paolini's). I'm more impressed that a teenager raised enough money to be self-published.

What are your writing-related pet-peeves?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Writing Process: A Blog Hop

Christopher M. Cevasco invited me to a fun bloghop where I answer four questions about my writing process and tag another author to do the same. Christopher has had stories published in Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War, and Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages. He's seeking representation for a historical thriller about Lady Godiva (so cool).

Without further ado, here are the questions:

What are you working on?

VOODOO QUEEN, a novel of Marie Laveau. She was the greatest voodoo priestess who ever lived and ruled New Orleans through her power and reputation for most of the 19th century. Although she is shrouded in legend and mystery, more research has been done about her than most people realize. I plan on writing a thorough and accurate account of her life (with a generous serving of magic, of course), which has never been done before.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

I have an intense interest in world religions and spirituality. My favorite books include Pope Joan, Mother of the Believers, and Peony in Love, for instance. I like to tell stories not how I think they happened, but how believers say they happened. There's no doubt or skepticism in my books. This makes them both magical and meaningful.

Why do you write what you do?

My work has to have a deeper meaning for me. I write what I find interesting, and therefore most of my books run on a theme (mysticism and spirituality). I believe most authors follow a pattern whether they try to or not. 

I do have another pen name - Catherine Swift - and she writes romances with a twist. I don't know why I write that stuff. Her books are less serious because they're less meaningful, so they might not go anywhere. 

How does your writing process work?

I wish I could give you a straight answer! It completely depends on the book. I once wrote a coherent rough draft in 18 days, and it's my best work. VOODOO QUEEN, on the other hand, has caused me a lot of grief and I was stuck on it for almost a year. I don't see myself finishing it any time soon.

There's only one thing all my books have in common: OUTLINES. The better my outline, the better the book. I write dozens of pages of notes on plot, themes, and characters before I even sit down to write. 

I like to get as much research done before I even start my book. Once my rough draft is over, I do most of my research over again because it isn't until that point that I fully understand how much research the book needs. I try not to do any research while working on the first draft, however, because it's easy to drown myself in it and not get any writing done.

And now to tag the brilliant author who agreed to participate in this blog hop:

Kris Waldherr is an author, illustrator, and designer whose art has been exhibited in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is the acclaimed author of DOOMED QUEENS, THE LOVER’S PATH, and THE BOOK OF GODDESSES, and best-selling creator of The Goddess Tarot. Her upcoming publications include her debut novel THE LILY MAID. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, anthropologist Thomas Ross Miller, and their young daughter.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What Will You Read This Year?

I didn't used to be selective about what I read, but I also didn't used to be a mom. Now my time is much more precious and I want to make sure my year is spent reading good quality stuff. 

To keep focused and to avoid junk, I made a list on Goodreads of what I plan on reading this year. It was hard to narrow the list down, but I was able to keep it to 28 books. Hopefully I'll read more, but I think twenty-eight is a reasonable goal.

Which leads me to ask: What books do you plan on reading this year?

Here are the books I decided on. Let me know if you've read any of them and if you liked them or hated them.

The Last Queen of India

Becoming Josephine: A Novel

Friday, December 27, 2013

Why I Don't Hate the Market, Even After it Ruined My Dreams

I'm not going to pretend that my shelved book SACRED FIRE is flawless. However, the reason it didn't take off wasn't due to a flaw. Agents and betas all told me the same thing; the writing is strong, but the market isn't buying Ancient Rome.

On the one hand, it's totally unfair. You would think that every quality book should have the chance to be successful. If it's well written, people will read it, right?

On the other hand, I can't blame the market for not reading Ancient Rome. I don't read Ancient Rome either. Part of the reason I wrote Sacred Fire was that I wanted to do something from that time period that was fresh and original, something that focused on religion instead of war and politics. I've read books in that time period I really liked, but it's exhausting to read about a culture so different from our own, so I can only read so many of them.

I can't be mad at the market for not reading books I don't read, I can't be mad at editors for not publishing books that don't get read, and I can't be mad at agents for not taking on books that don't interest editors.

(Of course, if there were more Ancient Roman books I like such as Stephanie Dray and Kate Quinn, I'd probably read that time period more. Now we're getting into a chicken-or-the-egg argument.)

A friend of mine had to shelve a book that I thought was fantastic for the same reason; it was Dystopian, and people have lost interest in dystopian stories. She was able to get her next book published because it was sci-fi. 

At first I was irritated that people have lost interest in such a fascinating genre so quickly. Then I realized, I've lost interest too. I took a Utopian/Dystopian literature class in college, I read Hunger Games, and I read Matched. I might read Divergent because everyone says it's great, but for the most part, I'm not likely to pick up another Dystopian book unless it's extremely original and popular.

To sum up, it certainly sucks for writers that they need to keep up with a mass of ever-changing tastes. It takes years to write and publish a novel and much less time for a fad to go out of style. Shouldn't art speak for itself? Shouldn't quality be the only thing that matters? Isn't it cruel to turn your nose up at a good book?

But you can't force readers to buy something they don't want to read, and I can't be mad at readers for not buying something I probably wouldn't read either.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When to Give Up on Your First Book

It's time for me to shelve Sacred Fire and move on. This was an impossibly hard decision to make, and one I've been battling for years. I just can't keep pushing for this book. I got 85 rejections on this round of querying (that's not including the rejections I got from other rounds), and I had a total of six agents look at the book and say no.

My decision has nothing to do with the numbers, though. The truth is, I'm not going to pursue this book any further because I don't want to. I have zero desire to rewrite any of it. Other projects are more appealing to me. In the end, that's all that really matters.

At the last Historical Novel Society Conference, an agent said something that's been burned in my memory. I told her about my book, and I could tell right away she was unimpressed. Then she asked me how long I've been working on it. I told her six years. She gave me this look like I was the biggest fool on the planet. "Why?" she asked.

The question caught me completely by surprise. Because of the American Dream, I wanted to say. Because you can do anything you set your mind to. Because you should never give up. Because if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?

Once I read a blog article where the author talked about when to shelve your first book and move on to the second. She said many of her friends regretted how much time they spent trying to make their first manuscript work, but none of them regretted putting it away to start a new novel. 

For a long time, I've asked myself if I would eventually regret putting so much work into Sacred Fire. I'm not sure if I have any regrets. All I know for sure is I won't regret moving on to my second.

Maybe I'll pick it up again someday, perhaps when the market wants Ancient Rome or after I've made a name for myself with a different novel. Until then, up on the shelf it goes.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting Past the Dreaded First Chapter

In my last post, I talked about how I was stuck on my book Voodoo Queen for ages. The first reason was I couldn't decide on a narrator. The second was I couldn't decide on a first chapter. 

The first chapter isn't super important... at first. Once you start revising, it's kind of a super huge deal.

I took the classic advice and wrote everything else I could until the first chapter just came to me. This is good for getting past a hurdle that could prevent you from starting your book. But if you're like me and you wrote 80,000 words and still don't know your first chapter... well, that's a problem.

What's the big deal? Sure, I had a lot of content, but without at least knowing where my novel started, I couldn't build a narrative flow. My hero needs a call to action, plot twists, goals, challenges, etc., and all these things need to happen at the right time and in the right order. If I don't know whether to start the book when my MC is a child, an adult, on her death bed, etc., then I can't properly plan how the book will develop.

Two years ago I wrote a blog post on the secret to knowing where to start your book and where to end it. I compared the story to a rolling rock, and every plot twist changes the direction of the rock. You start your book as late as you can in the story and end it as soon as you can while still making sense (don't write when you know which direction the rock will go). This didn't help me, unfortunately, because I didn't have enough of a foundation to make the rock roll in the first place.

Then I saw this video where an author says to start your book on the day everything changes. It was a light bulb moment for me. The first chapter shouldn't be for the sole purpose of setting the scene, introducing your characters, or showing an example of your MC's everyday life. Don't begin with a character waking up in the morning, brushing his teeth, and driving to work. The first chapter should be the first plot twist.

All I had to do was decide my character's call to action. In order to know that, I had to know 1. the character's main goal, and 2. what inspires that character to attain that goal or what first hinders that goal. Once I figured that out, deciding how to write my first chapter was easy.
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