Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tuesday Travels - No. 28 - Try Ravioli from Bertucelli's La Villa Gourmet

Back on track for Tuesday Travels, and working on my BABL! A few weeks ago, I had brunch in Willow Glen with Estelle of my San Francisco Adventure fame, and so I decided to finally stop at Bertucelli's La Villa Gourmet, an Italian delicatessen in the neighbourhood, to buy some ravioli to cook.
With special guest star, Christine's Feet
I don't know when I first heard of the place, but the reputation preceded it, and after reading a few newspaper articles about the business that raved about their ravioli, I knew I wanted to give it a try!

First thing: yes, it was a Saturday lunchtime, but the place was insanely busy. I ordered ahead and still had to wait a good twenty minutes to be served. Most people were buying Italian sandwiches and food from a hot food counter. I couldn't see the hot food section, but the sandwiches looked good; they were cutting all of the meat fresh from long salamis and sausages, which is something you don't normally see. No Oscar Meyer Bologna here!

I went for a basic cheese ravioli with a meat tomato sauce (Bolognese? Marinara? I'm not entirely sure of the difference), but they also have lobster, feta, chicken, and beef raviolis, plus sometimes seasonal flavors. I could see more sauces, including alfredo, vodka, and pesto--and I'm fairly certain more were hiding from me. However, they were already almost sold out of ravioli, so ordering ahead is definitely the way to go.

Christine's Feet are still making cameos.
The ravioli came in one big square! I wasn't expecting that; I assumed it would already be broken apart, but the instructions on the box were quite specific about not breaking them. I just dumped them in a large pot of boiling water for a few minutes, and presto! Ravioli. Throw in some sauce, and dinner was served.
This was definitely some of the best pasta I've had, particularly out of my own kitchen. The ravioli were so tender, and the cheese was soft but not mushy. The pasta was slightly thinner than expected, but it tasted stronger than I am used to. My experience with fresh pasta has been limited to the refrigerator section of Safeway, which isn't really that fresh. But this pasta was still firm, not floppy; al dente, and with the flavor that normal dried spaghetti lacks. It was like a real carb. Spaghetti noodles don't taste like bread; this almost did. It had that wheaty, carby deliciousness.

The sauce was a bit of a let down. Originally, I tried some cold and it just tasted like Ragu, but once it was heated up it tasted much better. It was also somewhat sweet, which worked well with the cheesy ravioli, but I think I would have liked something a little more tart. Also, I didn't see or taste any meat, so I think I got the wrong sauce. C'est la vie.

But was it good? Yes. Usually I hate leftovers, but I really looked forward to reheating my ravioli, and it kept shape and tasted fine a few days later. Would I go again? Yes! But I might want to try a different sauce (mmm, pesto), and I'd love to try some other pastas as well as their other raviolis. Given how amazing the pasta part of the ravioli is, the noodles but be amazing. There was also some butternut squash gnocchi that sounded delicious. And I wonder if they make a spumoni? And the sandwiches seemed yummy too. I think I will wander back down again!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Monday Musings - Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot Review

Another Monday Musings, another book review! This time, we are (once again) doing a book that came out several months ago, Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot.

When this was first announced, I was kind of blown away. I thought that the Princess Diaries series ended well; I loved the final book, and it was a satisfying finale. However, since this jumps eight years into the future, it doesn't exactly feel like a sequel. It isn't Princess Diaries: The College Years. It's an adult book, with a very frank discussion of sex and adult relationships, and not as much of whimsy that a bildungsroman can provide.

So some of the logical plotlines from the original series are gone, as well as some of the characters. However, most the main characters are back in Manhattan and friends with each other (and still dating the same characters, for the most part). I can't say that it picks up where Forever Princess ends, but there's definitely no major changes that will confuse readers. That's somewhat unrealistic, but it is lampshaded, so at least the book acknowledges the problem.

But the major problem with the book goes unacknowledged. Royal Wedding is the big, happy bow on top of everything. Forever Princess gave most of the characters a happy ending--this is supposed to be a bit of a fairy tale, so you expect a happily ever after--but the endings were all true to the characters and the future wasn't guaranteed to be amazing. Mia had her dream boyfriend, but she was about to move away for college. Her dad had a new woman, but she clearly wasn't an enamored. All the friends were splitting up. It was a happy ending, but it was still realistic.

Now? Mia's been handed a sister, her parents together, her dream husband, the crown, and kids in the time period of about two weeks. She didn't have to work for it; it was all handed to her. The character development from the previous series is gone. Mia's parents are brought back together with the disappearance of Ms. Martinez and the offscreen death of Mr. G. Despite Mia's Dad's alleged infertility, he has another love child that he never mentioned. Mia's birth control just happened to stop working. Everyone (except Lilly) is in love with their high school sweetheart. There's a happily ever after, but then there's just a cliché ending, and this falls firmly into the latter category.

Royal Wedding the book equivalent of cotton candy. Fun, yes, but also somewhat frustrating, because you were hungry and the cotton candy is just saccharine and not filling. It came back for one final swing, and it almost turned into a parody of itself, and the series as a whole. Everything that was worked for in the past books--Mia's relationships with Lilly and Tina, Phillipe's growth, everything--has turned into a joke. The book was fun, yes, but it was also frustrating.

Will I buy the future Olivia Grace books? Probably. But I hope they go back to the original Princess Diaries way: realistic and yet fantastic, happily ever after and still true to life.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday Fiction Feed - ((Quiet))

Writing is a busy thing. Books are a busy thing. I suppose nobody is really interested in reading a book about silence and calmness; that would be boring.

But I think it is important for characters to get a breather every now and then, partly because it bring issues to the surface (hopefully issues with other characters, which create further issues, which create new plotlines...). If we cram something in every minute of our character's lives, they don't have a chance to think about everything.

And maybe you'll delete those moments once you're editing, but at least you gave the characters a chance to do something.

So let a character reflect this weekend. Think. Be quiet. See what trouble they will get into when there's nothing but themselves to trouble them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Weekly Writing Wrambling - Plotting vs. Freestyle, Part Four

For the past few weeks, I have been posting my thoughts about writing a novel with an outline, without an outline, and with a loose outline. These are all very valid techniques. But what happens after the novel is written? I propose: reverse outlining!

(Or first outlining, if you freestyled originally.)

Back in my former life as a Writing Tutor, this was my favorite technique to teach students who were editing essays, and it's still my favorite technique to edit novels today. Looking at hundreds of pages is a very daunting task; I think it is much easier to distill what you have, and then start moving things around from there. You will still need to look at the whole, but this is much easier for when you are starting off.

What sort of outline you use is up to you. For longer works, I find a chart is easiest, while I prefer a traditional layout for essays and the like. In any case, the first thing I do is make a list of all of the scenes in the novel. This is not a list of chapters; chapters can include many scenes. Similarly, a scene might change within the same location. If there is a chapter break, I generally like to call it a new scene, but the choice is yours.

Once you have a list of scenes, list what is happening in the scene in as short a sentence as possible. "Bob feeds Kitty" is a valid description, as is "Bob and Jill almost kiss before Jill is shot in the gut and dies" is also valid. After that, list why the scene is important and what it does for the characters. For example:
Bob feeds Kitty
Bob remembers he is in this for Kitty
Bob remembers he is in this for Kitty
Kitty finally starts liking Bob
Bob and Jill almost kiss before Jill is shot in the gut and dies
Jill realizes Bob’s telling truth; Bob gets in trouble; Kitty runs away
Bob realizes Jill isn’t involved with the mob
Kitty runs away and is now in hiding
Jill now realizes that something is going on
Bob is questioned by police
Bob finally learns about Big Eddy
Bob becomes a suspect
Bob realizes the police are against him

Sometimes I also like to include highlighting, so I can easily view the distribution of action scenes to characters scenes to discovery scenes (when the characters follow a clue). Obviously, if you're in a more character-driven novel, you might prefer highlighting how the character feels or something like that. Highlighting can help when you start figuring out pace and potential pacing issues, such as if you have too many deliberation scenes in a row and not enough action. Color is helpful because you can see everything at a glance.

Now you are also able to look at the character arc, as it is written, and figure out if the characters are behaving logically. Is Bob is angry at Jill in once scene and then okay with her in the next? Did Kitty get sick, and then she was fine, and then she was sick again? Again, once everything is distilled into an outline, you are able to look at what you have done and if there are issues with the characters. Now you know you want to make Kitty sick in the middle scene, or have Bob mention that he has cooled down towards Jill.

 This also works for when you need to start--gulp--taking words out. Maybe you figure out that hey, scene 35 really isn't necessary and can be taken out. Maybe you figure out that hey, scene 36 should really be split into two so Bob and Jill have a greater connection. This is particularly important when you freestyled the first time around--you need to make sure that everything flows in a logical manner. It's easier to figure this out in a chart than it is when you are dealing with pages and pages of manuscript.

So: are you editing? Try reverse outlining. It helps--a lot!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Monday Musings - Recent Trends in Fiction, The Redux

Has anyone else noticed how many allegedly "finished" series are getting new books as of late? I'm not talking about a movie adaptation or a rerelease. I mean a brand new book, coming out with the same characters. In the past while we've had:

*New Goosebumps books (children's), released starting in 2009
*A new Babysitters Club book (prequel, children's), released April 2010
*A new Sweet Valley High book (adult), released March 2011
*A new Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book (adult), released June 2011
*A new series by Lemony Snicket, starting in October 2012
*A new Face on the Milk Carton book (YA), released January 2014
*A new Princess Diaries book (adult), released May 2015
*A new To Kill A Mockingbird Book, if that counts, released July 2015

Now, I could probably add more to that book, but I think that there is a trend going on here. Books that were largely popular in the nineties and early 2000s are getting...well, more books. Maybe that has always been going on, but I think we're definitely entering a renaissance for this.

When the new Goosebumps and Babysitters Club books came out, Scholastic said what was a fairly realistic philosophy: kids, who had read those book series while growing up, were now having kids and wanted something they could safely pass on to their kids. Goosebumps may have had some (mild) horror aspects, but those were both safe brand names; if kids were reading that, then they couldn't get too corrupted.

But sometime after that, the idea shifted. If so many adults are now reading YA, and the relatively new NA genre, then wouldn't they pick up books about the characters as adults? I think it makes a lot of sense that the first two Adult Reboots, Sweet Valley High and Traveling Pants, both came from series that were somewhat ghostwritten (Ann Brashares was hired to write the Traveling Pants series, from what I understand, so while she doesn't exactly count as a ghostwriter there's still an aspect of it being a job). They same authors could be hired again, this time to write a book that focused on the adult lives of the main characters.

Once those two books started selling--I admittedly purchased the Traveling Pants one, although I was never into Sweet Valley High and thus didn't care about the new one--more established authors started jumping on board. Daniel Handler (alias of Lemony Snicket), Caroline B. Cooney, and Meg Cabot had all written books in the past, but they were all still writing other words in the present. They got to return to those original worlds once it was proven to be financially successful to do so, but years after the original series was allegedly "finished".

Now, I've enjoyed these books. I'm not disappointed that this is going on. But I guess I'm curious at where the buck stops. There's not really a "big" series being published right now. From Goosebumps and Babysitters Club back in the nineties, we went into Harry Potter, and then into Twilight, and then into The Hunger Games. Some of the excitement was recaptured for other series, like A Song of Ice and Fire, or Divergent, or The Maze Runner. But by and large, there hasn't been a midnight release party for ages. Publishers had a successful run, and now that success is gone, so they need something new. That seems to be Adult Reboots.

But I don't think I want to read the adventures of the kids on the Traveling Pants farm. I don't want to read about Janie Johnson continuing to be an immature brat. I want to read something new--something exciting! Can we please get that instead? Adult Reboots are fine and dandy, but give me something new to read, please.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Friday Fiction Feed - Procrastination Station

I, like many of you, love to procrastinate. (Hence the state of this blog.) There are things I put off as much as possible because I loathe doing them. I hate laundry. I hate cleaning the bathtub. I hate shaving. I hate, I hate...

But these things have to be done. And that's especially true with a book. Remember: if you're bored, the reader would be bored too. Don't wait around for a certain page count or action before you get to the real meat of your story. Go ahead! Write it now!

So stop those characters from putting off that kiss. Stop the villains from waiting for May 19th to rob a bank. Stop waiting, and start doing!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Weekly Writing Wrambling - Plotting vs. Freestyle, Part Three

For the past two weeks, I have talked about the joys and sorrows of freestyle writing and outlining. There are problems with both of these methods that can be solved by the other, but if you ever need to divert to the other method, you are in trouble. If you go from freestyle to an outline, you've lost all that wonderful freestyling. If characters start doing their own thing, your outline is useless. Similarly, if you have an outline and decide to go off on your own, so much time that you spent plotting has been wasted, and you are soon not going to have a clue what you are supposed to be writing.

Because of that, I prefer a looser form of outlining that I like to call hybrid outlining. That way, I can easily edit it and change it if I want to, but I have some idea of where I am going. I was particularly fond of this method back in hgh school, because I did want to freestyle--I just wanted to control my freestyling a bit more. So while I wrote huge, complicated charts and outlines last week, this week's example is much smaller:

Chapter 4
Bob looks into, and then steals, Jill’s car

There is way less detail. This means your going to start your chapter mostly free (like we discussed the other week), but also means you know what you are supposed to do. The specifics are up to you. I haven't created guidelines about why Bob steals the car, whether Jill sees Bob, where Jill is, and how many cars are in the parking lot. I'm free to let the scene unfold exactly as I see fit. That's pretty nice.
Of course, we run into some issues. Like freestyling, if I have a complicated plot I might forget to do something important. Like outlining, I still am in trouble if I decide to make a major plot change. But these are more easily controlled. If I want to make a major plot change, not much work is lost--and it doesn't cause a lot of work to make a new outline. To negate forgetting something, I can still add more information to my chart, but keep it tiny:

Plot point
Chapter 4
Bob looks into, and then steals, Jill’s car
·         Three identical cars
·         Jill sorta sees Bob

BOOM. Now you know what you need to know, you've still got freedom, and it didn't take much time. Huzzah!
But now it comes to the writing--and things always start changing. Next week I'll discuss post-writing outlining, which is one of my favorite editing techniques.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Friday Fiction Feed - A New Character!

Sometimes, your current character list can get stale. At times like that, I like to add a new character to the mix. Now, normally adding more doesn't work--for instance, if your chocolate is all clumpy, you don't want to add more chocolate--but characters are a different type of thing. A new character can be bothersome and get the characters out of a rut. They can cause romantic tension, drama, an evil counterpart. They can even be used as a tradeout--add a character, and then take one of the old ones out. (And then there is death, mwahahah.)

So this week, try adding a new character to the mix. Get someone new in there! Are they funny? Serious? Kind? Melancholy? Verbose? Mysterious? Make them interesting. It can get your characters moving again, and moving characters are interesting ones.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Weekly Writing Wrambling - Plotting vs. Freestyle, Part Two

Last week, I discussed what it is like to write without an outline. This week, I will be discussing outlining.

Outlining is a pretty diverse term. Some outlines are essentially the book in outline form, while others are just some notes to help you remember what you need to do. This week I want to focus on the stricter, more detailed outline. For example, one person might have:

1.      Bob decides to steal a car
a.       He wants to steal the car because he can sell it
                                                              i.      Bob is starving
                                                            ii.      Bob’s kitty is starving
b.      Bob also wants revenge on his boss
                                                              i.      He has to research boss’s car’s whereabouts
2.      Bob searches for Jill's car
a.       He finds it in the Lucky's parking lot
                                                              i.      He's worried that Jill will see him
                                                            ii.      He sees three different Nissan Sentra's and has to inspect each one carefully
b.    Bob almost runs into Jill
c.    He does find out which one is hers, but has to flee the scene
  i.    Jill thinks she sees someone who looks like Bob
For the more detailed version, you're going to remember what you need to do, the motivation, and who is involved. You can almost copy and paste the outline, and then just create a paragraph (or sentence) for every line item. This was how I liked to write essays in college, because it was good at keeping me on track. If I had a really strong outline, I knew that what I was writing would support my thesis. 

What I have found best is to create a new outline for each chapter, and to try and divide things up from there. The 1’s and 2’s are scenes—in the case of this outline, scene one is more internal dialog on Bob’s part, while scene two is an action scene. The a’s and b’s are the supporting factors. In an internal scene, this is motivation, while for an external scene, this is actions. It’s the reverse for the i’s and ii’s—in an internal scene, that is actions, while for an external scene, that is internal. Note that internal doesn’t necessarily mean thoughts, but rather something that the protagonist doesn’t necessarily know—for example, what Jill knows.

The format I've used above has some constraints, though. For one, it can be hard to track your character's progression if it is displayed so linearly. For reasons like that, I would recommend--if you are doing something of any length, where you need to keep track of many moving parts--to use something similar, but in chart form. For example:

Plot point
Chapter 4
Bob decides to steal a car
Bob is starving
·         Kitty is hungry.
·         Bob wants to feed Kitty
Bob wants revenge on his boss
Bob researches for Jill’s car, finds it at Lucky’s
·         Worried that Jill will see him.
·         He sees three different Nissan Sentra's and has to inspect each one carefully
Shopping at Lucky’s
Jill exits Lucky’s
Bob has to flee
Jill thinks she sees someone who looks like Bob

This one looks a little bit more complicated, but it is easy to track of all three characters. At a glance, I know who is going to be in what scene, what is going on, who is doing what, and what each person is thinking. It actually makes things easier to work through while writing, especially if you need to assess where a character is at and what they are doing. However, you can’t just copy and paste and work off of it like you can with the other version. This one helps you think things through, but maybe not write things through.

So which is best? It honestly depends. Not every way works for every writer. The key—with all of this—is to come up with a technique that works best for YOU and for your specific work. If you’re going with something complicated, though, you probably need some sort of outline to go off of. Both of these work, but they both have different uses; one makes the writing itself easier, while the other makes the plotting easier. They’re two of many viable techniques.

I’ll talk about a more hybrid form of freestyle writing and outlining next week.