Everybody Bakes Chocolate Chip Cookies (aka: Editing)

You have just baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

There they rest, golden-brown and delicious, cooling on the counter. Your plan? To give them away — no wait, to sell them for money. But there is a problem.

Everybody bakes chocolate chip cookies.

unoriginal_chocolate_chip_cookies

True, not everyone’s cookies are alike. Some scrap them together with cheap or artificial ingredients. Others drop hunks of pre-made dough onto a cookie sheet and call it a day. And some get it right, following the recipe and adding the perfect measurements of flour, brown sugar, vanilla, and egg. But still.

Everybody bakes chocolate chip cookies.

And if fifty sellers of chocolate chip cookies showed up at your door one day, as they do every day, whose would you buy? Only the best of the best. The true standouts in the bunch. Also, they probably wouldn’t be chocolate chip cookies.

So now that you have worked so long on baking your perfect batch of cookies, what can you do to improve your chances of selling them? Start by cutting out the good parts. Oh come on, everyone knows that the good part of a chocolate chip cookie is the chocolate chips. Take them all out and set them aside.

Done? Good. Now grab a rolling pin, and crush  all the leftover crumbs into tinier crumbs. Next, scoop up two-thirds of those tiny crumbs, and throw them in the trash. You heard right — the trash. As for the remaining crumbs, wet your fingers, and mush them all together into a ball. Pack it tight, like a snowball. Now stand across the kitchen, aim, and toss it toward the trash, too.

There.

All that remains is chocolate chips. The good parts. The yummy, gooey, mouth-watering parts. Place every last chip into a saucepan, turn on the heat, and stir until melted. Pour the melted chocolate into a silicone bowl, and place it in the freezer. Now go and read, or watch TV, or play computer games or whatever. In a few hours, come back and remove the bowl from the freezer, then peel away the silicone.

You have just made a giant chocolate chip.

What? It doesn’t even resemble your original batch of chocolate chip cookies? Good. Because everybody makes chocolate chip cookies. But when it comes down to it, the cookies are overrated. It’s the chocolate that everyone really wants to eat.

chocolate_is_the_best_part

This is why I have not been blogging much lately. You see, I have finished baking a lovely batch of chocolate chip cookies. Only I like to call it a novel. And I’ve been putting lots of work into digging out the “chocolate chips” — the delicious, wonderful parts that everyone will want to read. When at last I have torn apart the original batch (aka: first draft) and turned the whole thing into a mouth-watering written masterpiece, then maybe, just maybe, I will be ready to send it to the cookie critics — um, I mean, editors.

editing_the_novel

It’s getting there. But my kitchen is a mess, and I keep mistaking those dull, dreaded cookie crumbs for true pieces of chocolate. (I once was a member of two critique groups whose purpose was to discern between the two). It takes a lot of work to bake it just right. But I refuse to give up and send the editors yet another Tollhouse batch of words to toss in the slush pile.

Editors love chocolate chips. But they are sick of cookies.

editors in the slushpile

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Paper Lives and Paper People (aka: Misimagination)

  “You had been a paper boy to me all these years – two dimensions as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person. But that night, you turned out to be real.” (~ Margo Roth Spiegelman; Paper Towns, by John Green)

paper town map

One of the books that I recently finished during my summer reading spree was Paper Towns, by John Green. Although I found the story itself to be, well, mediocre, the author managed to strike a few surprising chords that still echo within me.

From the very beginning, I thought I knew the story. Troubled teen, Margo Roth Spiegelman, makes impulsive choices to gain attention from others. Disillusioned with life in what she describes as a “paper town,” she runs away. The main character, Quentin Jacobsen, who is in love with Margo almost to the point of obsession, disrupts his own life to follow the clues Margo left behind, determined to find her.

Aha, I think. Now I understand the theme of this story, and the meaning of Paper Towns.

“All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.” (~ Margo Roth Spiegelman; Paper Towns, by John Green)

where is Margo Roth But I am wrong. Just as Quentin discovers that he doesn’t really know Margo Roth Spiegelman, I discover that I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg in regards to this story’s theme. Margo Roth Spiegelman is more than just a metaphor – she is a real-life girl. And guess what? Paper Towns are a real-life thing (which both exist and yet do not really exist).

But that’s not all. As the story continues to unfold, I learn yet another concept of paper people from paper towns. They are the people who we create of the people who actually exist. Everyone takes the stories that they had heard of Margo and uses those stories to form a “paper,” 2-dimensional version of her. Likewise, Margo uses her memories of friendship with Quentin to create a 2-dimensional, fictional version of him.

misimagined How often do we do this? How often do we read celebrity gossip or see flashes of these celebrities in the media, then use those to tiny snapshots to determine who they are? How often do we take in tiny bits of information about the people around us, then assemble those ideas into a shallow, incomplete version of a person?

Do we shake off our complacency, like Quentin, and make an effort to get to know the real life human being before us? Or do we content ourselves with the fake, 2-dimensional, paper image of that person which we have created in our own imaginations? How real do we allow other people to become? Are we disappointed when the real-life person fails to live up to the false paper image in our minds?

Kalliope, Where Are You? (aka: How to Treat Writer’s Block)

question marksSYMPTOMS: The words won’t come. The clock ticks, the shadows shrink and stretch again, and somewhere, a spider scuttles across the ceiling. But still, the words won’t come. I lift my fingers to the keyboard, pause, then let them drop to my lap. A scream builds inside my chest. Words, they are only words – type something, type anything! Dmkvnekfnienomknjsaono12i34cn8. UGH! In frustration, I throw back my head and cry out to the muses, Kalliope, where are you?!?

DIAGNOSIS:  Writer’s Block

Snoopy Guide to Writing Life

TREATMENT:

  1. Take slow, deep, calming breaths. Resist the urge to throw your laptop across the room. This is counterproductive.
  1. Go for a run. Ride a bike. Exercise gets the blood flowing, possibly even to your empty brain.
  1. Write something else. Sometimes, taking a break from the novel to write something from a different genre may stimulate creativity and give you a fresh sense of perspective. Try a poem, a persuasive essay, or a shallow, humorous blog post.
  1. Step away from the computer screen and get out into the world. Observe and talk to people. Yes, real, live people. Other people can be interesting and inspiring. Thought: In order to create art that imitates life, one must actually live and observe life.
  1. Get some sleep. Yes, we writers tend to think that the muse only comes to whisper in our ears during the wee hours of the night. But the truth is, inspiration can come at any time, and we are better prepared to receive it when well-rested.
  1. Read books. Most good writers were inspired by reading the works of other good writers. Read for pleasure. Read to learn new techniques. Read something outside of your genre comfort zone. Fill your brain with great words, and maybe then, your own words will begin to flow.
  1. Revel in the Shitty First Draft. Your first draft does not need to be perfect. I repeat – your first draft does not need to be perfect. Aim for perfection, and you will go nowhere fast. So what if your character is unlikeable? So what if the dialogue is crap? So what if you have written 5,000 worthless words that no one would want to read? This is a first draft, for goodness’ sake! Write the whole novel, even if it sucks. It is during the editing process that your real story will arise.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life 

wrong muse

Girl Power! (aka: Barbie, What on Earth Happened to You?)

Techie BarbieFirst of all, let me just say that I was a total Barbie girl. I was one of those girls who stubbornly refused to stop playing with Barbie dolls until long after my middle school peers had already lost interest. I adored her pink, perfect world of glittering outfits, miniature accessories, and stupid plastic shoes that would not stay on her dainty little feet. While other young teens were busy flirting with real-life boys and experimenting with styling their own hair, I was locked away in my bedroom, acting out these same things with Barbie, Ken, and the gang (including a few unfortunate punk haircuts).

Barbie careersTo me, however, Barbie was about much more than wearing cute clothes and having pretend sex with Ken (oh come ON…every girl in the history of Barbie fandom has tried that at least once). Barbie was the ultimate symbol of Girl Power. We girls can do anything! We can be teachers and doctors and zoologists! We can be high-powered office executives by day, and all dolled-up for a smokin’ hot date by night. We can work hard, and then buy ourselves a dream house, a townhouse, a pink camper, and a matching Corvette. If nothing else, the Barbie campaign of my childhood taught us girls that we could have it all and be it all, and still look great doing it.

So what on earth happened?

Computer Engineer Barbie

Just in case you’ve been living in a cave that is deeper underground than my cave, here’s the scoop: Mattel had a book, published in 2010, titled, Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. Like me, many people cheered the concept. Hooray! Barbie is helping to encourage young girls to consider STEM careers, which continue to be largely dominated by men. Good for Barbie! However, as you read the story, you are met with the sad reality – Computer Engineer Barbie is a fraud. Sure, she comes up with a cute idea for a video game, but then she explains to Skipper,

” ‘I’m only creating the design ideas,’ Barbie says, laughing. ‘I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.’ “

Seriously, Barbie?! You’re a computer software engineer and you can’t do the coding for your own game without help from the men? What’s happened to you? And as if that weren’t disappointing enough, Barbie inserts her flash drive into Skipper’s computer and – whoopsie – ends up infecting the computer with a virus. So, does Computer Engineer Barbie use her brain and her education and disinfect the computer herself? Of course not! She calls the boys, who eagerly offer to remove the virus for her.

” ‘Hi, guys,’ says Barbie. ‘I tried to send you my designs, but I ended up crashing my laptop — and Skipper’s, too! I need to get back the lost files and repair both of our laptops.’

” ‘It will go faster if Brian and I help,’ offers Steven.”

Ugghhh!!! I am guessing that clueless Computer Engineer Barbie had fake sex with her boss in order to be hired for her IT job. Luckily for girls everywhere, Mattel has pulled the disaster of a book and apologized for supporting such garbage. And luckily for everyone, an awesome IT consultant named Kathleen Tuite created the Feminist Hacker Barbie website, where users can edit the original text of the story to create a better version. Twitter users have also chimed in, with their – uh, more colorful editions of the story, using the hashtag #FeministHackerBarbie. One of the coolest things to come out of this whole fiasco has been the number of really smart women, many with IT careers, who have stepped forward to rewrite Barbie’s airhead words (and the patronizing responses of her male coworkers) with much more appropriate and witty dialogue. Now that is true Girl Power.

50 Shades of Terrible Writing (aka: Stop Biting Your Lower Lip!)

fifty shades film actors

Ooh, Mr. Grey…whatever do you plan to do with that tie?

Yesterday was the big day — the release date of one of the most highly anticipated movie trailers this year. That’s right — Fifty Shades of Grey has at last been made into an NC-17 film for our viewing pleasure. Fifty Shades of Guilty Pleasure. Fifty Shades of Smut. Fifty Shades of Oh-My-God-Is-That-Even-Possible? That adorable pair of fun-loving sex addicts will be portrayed by actors Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. (Oh my — is it just me, or did the temperature just spike a few degrees in here?)

Cue the giggling teenagers! Cue the feminist backlash! Cue feeding frenzy of housewives with longing in their eyes! Cue the scandalized conservatives holding angry picket signs in front of movie theaters across the nation!

The uproar surrounding the Fifty Shades film is unsurprising. After all, when the books first hit the shelves, they released a firestorm that had half the nation burning with desire and the other half burning with outrage. (Now I am giggling to myself, imagining a horde of Sarah Palin wannabes and male-bashing misandrists chasing down poor Christian Grey and attacking him with his own private stash of sex weapons).

Yes, I read Fifty Shades of Grey. And one of the sequels. For purely educational reasons, of course. 😉 And here’s the thing: these angry hordes have got it all wrong. You see, they are burning books over the issue of sex. Consensual sex between two adults. Yes, violent, wild, passionate sex. But still — two consenting adults. Yes, sadomasochistic sex, sex with riding crops and cuffs, sex with toys I have never even heard of before. But still, two consenting adults, behind closed doors (or elevator doors, at least), who are clearly turned on and happy with their choices. cuffs for the couple

Sex, control, and BDSM is not the thing that the world should be protesting. The thing that seriously sucks in the 50 Shades books is the writing. The books are filled with repetitive language, over-baked adjectives, and such unrealistic dialogue that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t meant to be a humor novel.

An example of a typical line from Fifty Shades: I can tell from his accent that he’s British. (You don’t say! Well, British accents have a way of cluing us in).

Another literary jewel: “Argon? It rings a distant bell from chemistry class—an element, I think.”

If not for the fact that I was reading on my Kindle app, I would have thrown the book across the room after that line. Seriously. Bad writing like this should be a crime. Forget protesting the upcoming movie — I should start an outraged literary group and lock E.L. James’ editor in Christian Grey’s Red Room of Pain to pay for exposing us to such filth (the bad writing, not the sex). Maybe I will. But first, I really should go and read the third book in the trilogy. Laters baby! little red riding crop

Plugged in and Disconnected (aka: Connecting With Kids)

“I’m baking poppy seed muffins!” I call out from the kitchen. “Who wants to join me?”

Sometimes my youngest son or my daughter stops whatever they were doing to join in. Sometimes no one. Which is actually fine, because let’s face it, it is much easier to bake poppy seed muffins or cakes or cookies by myself than with one of my kids. But that’s not the point.

I flop into my favorite chair in the living room. “So, what are we watching for movie night?” I ask the kids. Because at least twice a month, we have a movie night. Sometimes we rent from Redbox or so what’s on Netflix or pay-per-view. Sometimes we watch a comedy, or something thrilling or adventurous. Very rarely do we watch one of my favorite types of movies, but I don’t mind.

That’s not the point.

It’s about connection. I love spending unplugged time with my kids. By unplugged, I mean that the portable devices are off, the computers are off, and the only video games allowed are the ones that we are playing together. If I didn’t make a conscious effort to spend moments like these with my three kids, then they would probably spend a great deal of time “plugged in and disconnected,” as I like to put it. But  I want to teach my kids that connecting with people — really connecting, is the thing that adds value to life.

Plugged in Kids

It’s not always an easy thing to connect with kids. Each one is so different, with different interests and ways of communicating. My 9-year-old, for example, is an extrovert. He really gets his energy from being with other people. So to connect with him, I have to really be “in the moment” with him, actively listening to his stories and giving feedback. My daughter, whose personality is most like mine, is happy to connect in a variety of ways, from going for bike rides to cooking meals to reading teen novels together and discussing our favorite parts. My teen is a little trickier, as he prefers to withdraw beneath his headphones in his world of music, video games,  and YouTube videos. But sometimes I flop down beside him and stare at the screen along with him while he explains what’s so cool about it. I’ve also found that my teen will open up and talk about his life while the two of us engage in a game of table tennis or Nerf Ball catch in the living room.

 

 

I don’t always make a big deal out of connection time. After all, human contact is supposed to happen naturally. But in this odd age of electronic entertainment, sometimes our kids need a little nudge to pull away from the virtual world and reconnect to people in the real world. As do I.

connecting with kids

GREAT WAYS TO CONNECT WITH KIDS

1. Read a book or series of books together as a family.

My kids and I have enjoyed the Harry Potter Books, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the Pendragon series, among others. Sometimes I let my kids suggest the book, and sometimes I do the research to find something that we can all enjoy. Stumped? Try Planet Esme — I’ve used her children’s book suggestions for years with great success. Older readers? Hard to go wrong with the American Library Association’s suggestions.

2. Have a regular Family Movie Night.

In our house, Movie Night happens on Friday Nights, often with popcorn, cocoa, or homemade pizza. It isn’t always easy to find a movie that will suit everyone, so occasionally someone will opt out of Movie Night, and that’s okay, too.

Connecting with kids in nature

3. Find a reason to head outdoors together.

Hiking, biking, kicking around the soccer ball, flying a kite, tossing a frisbee, playing tennis in the park — there are so many great things to do outdoors with kids. If your kids are the hard-to-motivate type, then make hiking fun by passing around binoculars, setting up a nature scavenger hunt, or trying out Geocaching (more on this to come in a future post).

4. Root for a Team Together

I am still trying to make this one work with my kids. It’s tricky, because I am the only real sports fan in the family. But maybe one day…

5. Travel Together

Part of the fun is in the planning. Weeks in advance, I get my kids involved in helping to decide where to stay, what to do, and what to eat during our trip. When camping, I let them help to pick the spot, plan the meals, etc. The more involved the kids are, the more the vacation becomes “our trip” and not just mine.

6. Try New Hobbies

This doesn’t always mean together. After all, my kids and I share pretty different interests for the most part. But if my son decides to get into advanced yo-yo tricks, then I am happy to connect with him by watching his tricks, suggesting sources for learning new things, shopping for yo-yos, and cheering him on as his skills improve.

7. Explore New Foods

My kids and I have gone through a variety of international cooking phases, from Thai to Indian to French cuisine. We enjoy exploring ethnic markets for interesting foods, picking out restaurants, and, of course, tasting. Some foods turn out to be total flops, but others become family favorites that we return to time after time.

8. Grow  a Garden

For us, gardening is a family affair. My kids and I have built a raised bed together, studied garden books, planted, and cared for our small vegetable garden for years. This year, we are planning to continue our tradition at a community garden. It is a great way to connect with each other and with nature while growing our own healthy foods.

9. Family Game Night

This can mean a rousing group game on the WiiU or a good old-fashioned game of Checkers, Connect Four, or Monopoly. My kids and I recently discovered The Game of Life Zapped Edition, which uses an Ipad to turn a great family classic into something extra-special.

10. Make Something Together

This can mean woodworking, model kits, Lego structures, baking a cake and decorating it creatively, making handicrafts, or whatever sounds fun. You don’t have to be talented or skilled. The public library is brimming with how-to books that kids and parents alike can benefit from.

Goodnight iPad

Other good resources for family fun together:

Spoonful

http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/842477/50-family-fun-night-ideas-for-families

Child Discipline (A Cautionary Article)

Little Willie, with a curse
Threw the teapot at the nurse.
When it struck her on the nose,
His father cheered, “How straight he throws!”

–”Eros”

Published in The Westminster Problems Book, 1908.

Naughty Kids “How do I keep my child from becoming spoiled?” In my line of work, parents of young children often ask me questions such as this. Of course, as child development is my specialty, I try my best to guide parents toward solutions and resources that will help them to effectively discipline their children. There is a tremendous wealth of information on child-rearing these days – enough to make one’s head spin. I will not bother to publish links to my favorite resources, except for this beautifully written article I recently read, by John Robbins, which addresses the ways in which we often spoil our children in today’s culture: What Really Spoils Our Children? Here is one of my favorite exerpts from the article (although I highly recommend that parents read the entire piece):

It’s not love that spoils our kids. They become spoiled when we ply them with too many toys, too much stimulation, and too much of the wrong kind of attention. They become spoiled when they learn, often from our example, to identify their self-worth with others’ approval, with how they look, with how much stuff they have, with how expensive their clothes are, or with how large their homes are.

I will not pretend to be a perfect parent. I, too, am guilty of overindulging my children, of not enforcing consistent discipline at times, and of not insisting often enough that they help out with housework (though my children will beg to differ). But I certainly try, as every good parent does, to teach my children how to become disciplined, kind, thoughtful, creative, productive adults. And, like every good parent, I occasionally seek child-rearing advice from other wise people, such as Hilaire Beloc. demon child spoiled teen

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Hilaire Beloc? Why, his Cautionary Tales for Children have been used by good parents to frighten their children into good behavior since 1907. Not only is the book filled with  sensible and practical moral instruction to prevent children from growing up to become spoiled brats, but the book is also filled with amusing and lighthearted bedtime stories, such as the story ofAugustus: Who would not have any Soup Today or George: Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions. Here is one of my absolute favorite anecdotes: