Five Things I’d Rather Do Than Finish My Novel: How to Procrastinate Productively

There is a crisis point in writing a novel that I never knew existed – that is, until I reached it.  I have written many half-books.  If I combined all of my half-books into one grand and glorious whole book, it would be something like a Dosteovsky novel after it had eaten too much Tolstoy.

funny road sign changed prioritiesI have only a few times reached the threshold of the very-nearly-almost-book.  That is to say, I don’t generally finish books.  I have written a novella or two, short stories aplenty, and  I am working my way through a serial that may or may not ever end.  But to come within chapters of a complete manuscript of what would be an actual legitimate book?  That has not happened for many years.

There are three chapters left in my book.  Maybe four.  And then the first (albeit sketchy) draft is done.  So why I can’t I write three mangy chapters?  Why?  Somehow, bringing everything I have written to a sound and satisfying conclusion seems more difficult than writing the 200-something pages that came before it.

But creativity demands an outlet, so instead of writing my three (or four) last ever final conclusive chapters of my book, I have thought of a whole load of things that I can do instead.  I thought I’d share these lovely delays distractions activities in case someone else out there is in need of an escape from the crisis of the very-nearly-almost-book.  Or, heck, even the half-book, the sort-of-nearly-off-the-ground-book or the I-have-the-beginnings-of-a-genius-idea-book.  Everyone needs to procrastinate once in a while, right?

1. Bake Your Troubles Away

DSC_0075My default when I can’t settle down and get work done is to make something.  Right now, there are two loaves of bread rising in the kitchen.  A couple of days ago, there were ginger snaps.  I may have possibly been ignoring my novel for a while now…

Here’s the ginger snap recipe, just in case you are in need of a baking distraction.  A mostly finished novel does not smell like cinnamon, cloves, and heaven.  These do!

Best Ginger Snaps Ever

2 C Flour
2 t baking soda
2 t ginger
2 t cloves
2 t cinnamon
½ t salt

¾ C shortening
1 C sugar
1/2 C molasses
1 egg

Mix wet and dry ingredients separately, then combine. Roll into (smaller than golf, bigger than grape-sized) balls and roll in plain white sugar. Place on greased cookie sheet (or use parchment paper). Bake at 350 for 10 min.

Important:

The cookies won’t look or feel done when you take them out, but they ARE done! Just let them sit on the pan for a while until they solid enough to remove to a cooling rack.

2. Organize Something

Yes, that pesky closet that has been threatening to evacuate if you try to stuff one more pair of shoes where they simply cannot fit.  That closet needs to be organized.  Right now.  Way more important than three measly final chapters of a novel.  And you never know: you might find Narnia in the back of it if you just look one more time.  Who would want to risk ignoring Aslan’s call? I know certainly wouldn’t.

3. Buy a New Book

So you can’t finish your own book.  What of it?  There are so many lovely finished books out there. Just think of it: whole stores filled with shelves of books just begging to be read!  What about them?  Don’t they deserve your attention? What about that used copy of Branwen Uerch Llyr that you’ve been wanting to order for ages?  Nothing will make you feel quite so good about ignoring an unfinished novel as purchasing a nice, tidy, completed one. Especially if it’s medieval, Welsh, and needs translating.  Seriously, the best thing ever.

4. Go for a Walk

Exercise is very healthy and satisfying and sitting in front of your computer wrestling with the end of a book is so very not healthy and satisfying.  And walks are such a good way to gain inspiration and perspective and scope and all those other deep, deep things that writers always seem to be after.  (And maybe while you’re gone the chapters will mysteriously finish themselves. Miracles happen!)scotland countryside mountains

5. Start a New Novel

I shouldn’t have suggested that, should I have?  Because what we writers of very-nearly-almost-books do not need is a new project to distract us from the one that is begging us for an ending.  But then, writing something is better than writing nothing, isn’t it?  And we’ll come back to that book later, anyway, won’t we?

Of course we will.

Eventually.

Probably.

Maybe.

This post is very likely not a good post for anyone to read who is at the crisis point that I have reached.  However, it seems that we very-nearly-almost-book writers should stick together, share ideas, and perhaps even finish our projects one day.  These are my own particular favorite ways to ignore the fact that my book is missing an ending.

What are yours?

Losing Yourself and Finding Some Chocolate: Beating the Writer’s Block

You're sitting inside feeling sorry for yourself...

Every writer has dealt with that massive, invisible beast that plants itself squarely on our desks, preferably in front of our computer screens, and leers at us in a mocking sort of way, just daring us to get anything accomplished.  Sometimes this beast teams up with Facebook or another soul-sucking website and we lose hours without knowing where they’ve gone.

And our story sits tragically abandoned.

There are lots of ways to get around writer’s block.  We all have our tried and true methods, so I  thought I’d contribute a couple of mine.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes (quite frequently, actually) I just need to get away from my work.  And I don’t mean Facebook away or even read-a-good-book away.  Those have their places (especially the latter).  But little treats that allow me the sense of escape can make all the difference when it’s time to go back to the proverbial drawing board.
A perfect setting for a story...

So here’s my first solution:

Get Lost.  No, I’m not kidding or trying to be all philosophical. Leaving your desk, your house, your chaotic world behind and losing yourself in the outdoors can be incredibly soothing.  You might be lucky enough to have a beautiful setting to explore right out your front door – city streets, rambling countryside, a dimly lit wood – or maybe you need to hop in the car and drive a little ways to find it.  Either way, give it a try. Get a little lost on purpose and see what you find.  And while you’re at it, bring a camera and try to find the beautiful, bizarre, and interesting things you normally miss when you’re out and about.

If you do take some photos, please post them on your blog and link them here so I can appreciate them too.  I love seeing what others have discovered.  A recent find of mine is this Chinese restaurant called Karen’s Unicorn.  The name just makes me smile…

Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to write a story about Karen's Unicorn.

Now for your second escape from the dull monotony of a desk, a room, a house, a schedule.  You’ve taken a walk, snapped some photos, and now you need a snack. This one should suit just about anyone, so long as you enjoy chocolate.

Have you ever felt like a delicious, home baked treat, but you just don’t have the time, inclination, or ingredients to make a complicated dessert? Don’t resign yourself to store bought snacks just yet!  Before you settle back into your chair for a good one-on-one with your story, make yourself a five-minute chocolate cake.

I’m totally serious.  Five minutes.  And you probably have all the ingredients in your kitchen (if you don’t, feel shame and go shopping immediately).

Chocolate Cake in a Mug

1 average sized mug

  • 4 Tbs plain flour
  • 4 Tbs white sugar
  • 2 Tbs cocoa powder
  • 1/2 beaten egg (yes, annoying, but just save the other half for another cake!)
  • 3 Tbs milk
  • 3 Tbs veggie oil
  • Splash of vanilla extract (if you use imitation, you make me very sad)
  • Handful of chocolate chips or any chunks of a good candy bar.  Be creative! (I use broken pieces of Swiss baking chocolate because it’s actually cheap here)

In your mug, mix up the flour, sugar, and cocoa powder (I use a fork).
Add the beaten egg.  (It will be a bit gummy.  No worries!)
Add the milk and oil.  (Now it looks like cake batter!)
Add a bit of vanilla.

Life just got better...

Stir in your pieces of chocolate.  You might simply sprinkle them on top to keep them from sinking to the bottom, but I actually kind of like the melty, chocolatey bottom of my cake.  It’s up to you!

Stick your mug in the microwave.  My golden time was 2 1/2 minutes on medium setting.  You may find that more or less is needed.  You do NOT want to overbake it!  Fudgier is better.  The cake will rise up over the top of the mug while baking and will then sink back down a bit. Fear not.  This is normal.

(Warning: When you remove your mug of cake, your kitchen will begin to smell decadently of chocolate.  It may draw other members of your household into your immediate vicinity, so be prepared to defend your treat, unless you plan to share – which would be silly.)

For an extra flair, you can sprinkle powdered sugar on top, like I did, because I had it lying around.  Or maybe you have cool whip or vanilla ice cream available.  If nothing else, at least grab a glass of milk.

Now, this is my kind of work environment.

Let it cool a bit before eating! Remember that microwaves bake from the inside out so the middle will be very, very hot.

Make your way back to your desk and return to your story in a much happier frame of mind.  You took a beautiful walk.  You have your very own fresh chocolate cake.  And you have a story in the making.

Happy writing!

P.S. – If you try the cake in a mug and vary it in some amazing way, please share!

P.P.S. – A happy birthday to my little sis who is celebrating her sweet sixteen today!  Wish I could be there!

Writing and Baking

I love the Holidays!  I love the music, the cheer, the friends, the family, the caroling, the Church services, but mostly I love the baking!  My sister and I traditionally have a baking weekend where we bake a dozen different kinds of cookies and breads!  Oh, the wonderful smell of cinnamon and nutmeg.  The scent of yeast rising and baking bread.  We’d make chocolate peppermint cookies, sugar cookies, peanut butter kiss cookies, ginger snap cookies, and cranberry cookies; we’d make pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, banana nut bread, and cranberry bread!  These the aromas of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I cannot take credit for the cranberry cookies or bread.  Though it has become a family tradition and almost everyone knows my family because of these wonderful treats all the credit most go to Wendy and Harry Devlin, the authors and illustrators of Cranberry Thanksgiving & Cranberry Christmas.  These wonderful children’s stories were not only great fun to read but they had recipes in the back of each book to make the cranberry dish that was featured in the story.

Who knew that reading could taste so good!  Read a book and bake your favorite treat.  Hey, maybe you’ll be inspired to write a best seller!

Happy reading!

Happy baking!

PS: I’d share the recipes but they are copyrighted! So go out there and find the books and enjoy the amazingness of cranberries in baked goods!

Cinnamon Rolls and Dandelion Cordial: Writing Food in Your Story

As an amateur, but enthusiastic baker, I have many success stories, along with a few disasters.  Here are a few of the tidbits of wisdom that experience has imparted:

  • When baking a decadent three layer chocolate cake, it is essential to make sure that A) the layers are level, even if it means cutting the tops off and B) that the frosting is very stiff.  Cakes are not supposed to look like muddy, melting snowmen. You learned this the hard way last time.  Really, you’d probably just better stick with cupcakes.  Cupcakes, you can handle because they are small.
  • Always have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookie dough in the house.  You will need a fix at some point or another, Melissa.  You are an addict.  The first step is acceptance.
  • Allrecipes.com is the fount of baking wisdom. Learn from other wiser bakers than yourself because they know things.
  • Cream puffs are not nearly as difficult as you think they are.  The French only make them look hard by giving them a fancy name.  “Juste try making zee choux a la crème, you Americaine, you! It is zo verrrry difficile, n’est-ce pas?” *creepy French laugh*
  • Desserts can be cute.  You love cute!  Yay!
When I told Bella that fantasy heroes do not, in fact, consider flowers to be fine dining, she washed her paws of the matter entirely

Baking, like writing, is my escape from the world.  When life gets difficult, I stress-bake, and things get better. Thinking about baking got me thinking about food in stories.  I touched on it briefly in one of my Touring Fantasyland posts.  Food in stories tends to generally stick to the simple: waybread, stew, roasting rabbits over fires (please don’t kill me, Bella!), and maybe something fancy at a ball.  Here are a few ways to regard the food problem in a novel, fantasy or otherwise:

Food?  What is this strange substance that you speak of?

In these stories, food is, quite frankly, not important to your plot.  Like other necessities of life, such as going to the bathroom or brushing one’s teeth (oh wait, most fantasy heroes don’t do that… gross…), eating is a mundane activity that can easily be brushed over (brushed… like your teeth should be…).  In the interest of the plot, the reader does not need to know about food in detail, just that it was consumed on occasion.

I made the stew AND the bread bowl! Yes, I know the bread bowl is triangular. Totally on purpose... really...

While these stories have their place, they are, for me, a little more dull.  Characters who eat nothing but bread and stew are, in my opinion, people to feel sorry for.  However, in some cases, the facts of hunger and thirst are more important than the actual food, and so the descriptions are set aside in the interest of overturning villainous plots for world domination or defeating undead armies or other such trivial matters.

Ooh, someone left a cupcake on my desk!  This is really goo- Ack!  Ugh!  *death*

In some rare cases, food can be plot-related.  Integrating the food with your story adds an interesting twist to the tale and makes the reader think twice about that cup of hot cocoa.  I think of books like Poison Study by Maria Snyder in which the main character is a food taster.   Food figures largely in her world and so it is constantly being described.  Yelena learns to identify poisons by their tastes and smells. Food literally becomes a matter of life and death.

Not as big as your head, but definitely a great cinnamon roll. Muahaha! I have defeated Cinnabon!

Another book that has some interesting food-related plot details is Sunshine by Robin McKinley.  The main character is a baker who is famed for cinnamon rolls as big as your head.  The book is about vampires, but every time I read it, I think about those cinnamon buns first and vampires second.  I mean, really, who cares about vampires when there’s a gigantic cinnamon bun?  Sunshine’s life revolves around the family bakery and it plays an integral role in her world and, therefore, in the story. 

This can be a tricky one, though.  Centering a story around food can feel forced.  But when done well, it is a fun story to read.  Just… don’t eat the cupcake.

All hail the glorious FOOD!  Why?  Because it’s YUMMY!

Some stories just have fun with the food for no better reason than that food is fun and we love it.  The best example of this is definitely Brian Jacques’ Redwall series.  These books revel in food, glory in feasting, delight in the culinary arts.  When the characters of Redwall Abbey go on journeys, their packs are filled with scones and jam and sandwiches.  Every book has at least one, if not more feasts.  I salivate every time I read one of these delightful books.

The best part about the Redwall books is that the characters are all animals and much of the food should sound absolutely disgusting.  Who really wants to drink dandelion cordial after all?  But somehow, Jacques makes everything sound like the most delicious treat imaginable.  His descriptions draw you in and make you want to be that traveler who stumbles upon the abbey on a snowy winter’s night.  The books come to life because the characters’ stories are told around a roaring fire with mugs of something spicy and hot and plates of something decadently sweet.

Even the villains want Redwall’s food.

To nom or not to nom… is there really a question?

Most of the time, we put references to food in our stories as a minor detail.  People have to eat and we want our stories to be realistic.  Sometimes the food plays a pivotal role.  Sometimes, it’s there because we just want to celebrate the existence of food.

I don’t have the gift of describing food in the amazing detail of someone like Jacques, but I have had the enjoyment of using food in my latest book (temporarily titled Danni) in which the main character’s crazy British uncle  has a strange palate and loves to cook.  Food appears around the house simply because he enjoys making it, and the odd ingredients that get thrown in just emphasize his quirky nature.  As Danni puts it, adding toppings to pizza is like going to a theme park for Uncle Liam.  Inventing new food choices for Uncle Liam has been a fun twist on my story and adds an element that might not be essential, but I think does help define him as a character.

Another lie perpetrated by the French: Truffles are difficult to make!
They make fabulous gifts too!

It’s your turn now.  What food references do you think of in books that worked well?  Do you prefer that stories keep things simple and avoid the issue or do you like seeing food make its way into the plot and play a more significant role?