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Monday, May 30, 2011

Lessons Learned at ConDuit

ConDuit is an annual science-fiction/fantasy/horror convention in Salt Lake City. It's not a huge con. But the quality of guests and attendees is incredible. And the friendliness is unbelievable. Maybe it's because I'm local and I know most of these people. Maybe it's just Utah grows positive attitudes in its SF/F/Horror community. Either way, I had a fabulous weekend.

We took our horde with us this year. I was a bit nervous. My kids have never been to a con. I wasn't sure how they'd react. They had a blast. Even the 8yo and 10yo were happy and busy all weekend. The hotel bill was a bit steep, but 8 people in a nice hotel for a weekend eating in the restaurant isn't cheap no matter how you slice it. Every one of my kids wants to go back. Kudos to the committee and gaming people for keeping ConDuit very family friendly and inclusive. And a huge thank you to my hubby who ran the track for the kids. He had some great panels and demonstrations lined up. The kids at the con loved it.

I loved seeing all my friends from past years and meeting new ones. ConDuit has great regulars who come and hang out. The authors who come are very accessible and willing to share advice and stories with us newbies who haven't been authors for that long. The artists who come are just as much fun to talk with. I'm not sure about the gaming gurus because I don't hang out in that end of the con much. Not enough time to do it all or I would. I'd start naming names but I'm afraid if I miss someone they might think I don't like them anymore. Which isn't true. I love seeing these people. I miss the ones who didn't make it this year.

This year, I got to see a Nebula award up close and personal. It's awesome. I want one for my award shelf. Congratulations to Eric James Stone for winning it. They couldn't have awarded it to a nicer person. If you haven't read his stories, you really should. He oozes talent. And most of them are funny.

If you've never been to a convention and you like science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, horror, or just like having a good time, check out ConDuit. Come join us next Memorial Day weekend. The costumes are fun, the conversations intriguing, and the people very friendly. It's a great place to discover new authors and stories to read, new artists to decorate your walls, and make new friends.

Sorry, no pictures. I keep forgetting I own a camera. But if you search for ConDuit Convention, I'm sure lots of other people have posted pics.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Genre Differences

I promised this essay two weeks ago. That was before the flu and a whole lot of hairy deadlines. I've put a lot of thought into this topic. After Nexus Point came out in 2009, I struggled with defining what genre it fit in. Science fiction, yes, obviously. Maybe not. The only spaceship happens in chapter one, where it blows up, and the last couple of chapters. The whole middle of the book takes place on a low-tech world. So what sub-genre did it fit in?

There's also romance in the book. Does that make it Romance? Science Fiction Romance? I've spent time hanging out with Science Fiction Romance authors trying to decide if I fit in their genre.

Romance, of any subgenre, is a very different kind of writing. It's hard to describe because the differences are subtle. It has to do with where the emphasis is in the story, how characters are introduced and described, word choice, and sentence structure. Read enough romance novels and you can understand what I mean. Compare them with straight science fiction, murder mystery (not romance mystery), or fantasy. The fundamental structure is different. Romance puts the relationship, whether physical or emotional, at the forefront. Nothing else takes precedence over the romance.

Nexus Point is not Romance. Romantic, yes, a little, but not Romance. The story structure is wrong for a romance. Romance readers tell me it feels off. They like it, yes, the story is good, the characters are great, but the story itself is just not right. They're expecting the book to be structured and built like a Romance. Those who like science fiction tell me my story is fluff. It's not hard science fiction, it's not about the Great Idea or Science. They like it, but it's not "serious". It's too much romance, not enough science fiction.

If you look at readers of Romance, they are overwhelmingly women of all ages. Readers of science fiction, especially the hard stuff, tend to be men who don't like romance in their books. Look at the classic SF - characters are mainly men. Women are mostly decoration or set dressing. The audiences for these two genres are very different.

Is it possible to mix Romance and Science Fiction? Sure. Lots of authors do it. But who is your audience? Not hard core Romance readers, unless you write Romance with a few rockets and aliens and even then, most Romance readers won't pick up an SF book. Not hard core SF fans. No matter how good your rocket ships and aliens are, the heart of the story is a romance.

After much soul searching, deconstruction of genre, and lurking on websites, I've come to the conclusion that I write Space Opera. It's like summer beach reads for science fiction readers. Lots of action, lots of adventure, a touch of romance. Yeah, it's fluff, but entertaining fluff. So whatever genre you read, step out of your comfort zone this summer and try some space opera.

Nexus Point can be purchased from lots of online sites in many formats, including print. Check for a full list.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thursday Recipe - Wizard Corn

Another recipe from my Hogwarts mini-course. This is my favorite candy popcorn recipe. Have fun playing with flavorings and colors. Theme it for whatever holiday you want to celebrate. For Christmas, I like to make three big batches, yellow with rum, red with peppermint, and green with almond. After they set up, break the popcorn apart and mix all three in a bag to make a festive present.

Wizard Corn

8 quarts air-popped unseasoned popcorn
1 c. butter
1/2 c. corn syrup
2 c. sugar
1/8 t. salt
1 t. extract or flavoring or 1/4 t. oil flavoring
food coloring as desired

Melt the butter in a 2 or 3 quart saucepan. Stir in corn syrup, sugar, and salt. Cook to just past soft ball stage. (A little bit dripped into a bowl of ice cold water should form a soft ball that's just a bit chewy. It's just over 220° F.) Remove from heat. Stir in flavorings and colorings. Pour over popcorn. Stir gently until evenly coated. Spread out onto waxed paper to cool. Break into chunks and store in a loosely covered container.

Some of my favorite flavors are rum, peppermint, almond, anise, coconut, cinnamon (oil only), and vanilla. Fruit flavors will also work. The oil flavorings can be a lot stronger than the regular extracts, so if in doubt, add less. You can always use more next time if the flavor isn't strong enough.

For a fun eggnog flavor, add 1/2 t. rum extract, 1 t. vanilla, and 1/2 t. ground nutmeg to the syrup just before pouring over the popcorn.

For a fun experiment, instead of extract and colorings, add a packet of unsweetened Koolaid drink mix to the syrup. Flavor and color all in one.

You can also stir in fun things like marshmallows, red hot candies, gumdrops, M&M's, nuts, coconut, or whatever else catches your fancy. Just add them to the popcorn before you add the syrup. Be careful with chocolate candies. They may melt from the heat. You can always press them on top of the popcorn before it's cool.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Thursday Recipe - Chocolate Frogs

Today's recipe comes from a miserable failure of an activity. I thought since my kids were going to be home for two weeks over Christmas, I would set up a mini-Hogwarts school. They were big into Harry Potter at the time. I had all these great ideas for activities and cool things to do. The only parts that worked were making fancy wands out of pencils and cooking up the fun recipes I found.

These cookies are the big, soft chocolate cookies with powdered sugar. I usually call them Plate Tectonics Cookies, because they look like the big plates shifting around on the earth. It's a sneaky way to reinforce science concepts. Cookies lend themselves so well to teaching geology concepts. I should market an entire basic geology course mixed with a cookie baking course.

Chocolate Frogs were a hit with my kids. They still are.

Chocolate Frogs

2 c. sugar
2/3 c. oil
3/4 c. cocoa
4 eggs
2 t. vanilla
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2 c. flour
3/4 c. powdered sugar

Mix sugar, oil, and cocoa. Beat in eggs, vanilla, baking powder, and salt. Mix well. Stir in flour just until cookies are mixed. Cover and chill at least 2 hours.

Heat oven to 350°. Scoop dough into balls. Roll in powdered sugar and place on greased cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes until set. Cool before eating.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The dog ate my essay. Cross my heart.

I had a great post all planned on the differences between Romance and Other Genres. It's still waiting for me to write it. The weekend turned into a lot more work than I planned.

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Two weeks ago, my 18yo daughter brought home a giant hairball of a dog. Wookie is a chow-lab mix, as close as we can figure. He has a calm, sweet personality with a big stubborn streak. He also doesn't smell much like a dog. He's the perfect pet for my daughter. I'm not a dog person. I've never been one. Wookie convinced me that there are dogs I can live with. So, when she moved to another city last Saturday, I was prepared to get our family a dog.

Friday, we took our two youngest to the animal shelter to look at dogs. My 10yo son threw a massive fit. He did NOT want a dog in our house. He hates dogs. He tolerates them when we're housesitting, but he did not want one to move in permanently. He got overruled. We found the sweetest little black lab. Sasha is very quiet, polite, and gentle. She's the perfect dog for us.

The 10yo got so upset, he stole all the pillows off my bed and hid them. He threw a tantrum of massive proportions, at least for him. After a long discussion, we agreed that he could have the cat he fell in love with at the shelter if he would tolerate the dog. We now have a massive cat named Chunkalicious Rex. The picture does not do justice to the size of this beast. He's a big pansy, though, very friendly and sweet.

Saturday afternoon I spent mediating between the kids, the dog, Chunkalicious, and our geriatric toothless cat who's been in our house for over 15 years. It was quite the day. So nothing I planned for the weekend actually happened. I'm sure you wanted to know all that. Next week, I'll write that article about writing romance versus writing science fiction. Promise. Unless something else explodes in my life.
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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thursday Recipe - I got nothing. Whatchagot?

It's been very hectic the last few weeks. I'm plum out of ideas and it's an hour away from midnight and my self-imposed blogging schedule is about to die. So...

What do you feel like cooking tonight? Nothing? Same here. In fact, I came *this close* to just ordering pizza online and having it delivered. Except I have a couple of children that can't eat pizza. Food allergies. So we ate leftovers. Again. Problem is, the leftovers are getting old and the ones that are left are the ones that weren't that great in the first place.

It must be time to make that wonderful standby Whatchagot Stew. There are several variations of this soup.

Variation #1:
Open the fridge. Remove any leftover cooked meat; beef roast is the best but any meat will do in a pinch. If you have leftover gravy, it's happy dance time.
Dig through the back recesses looking for leftover cooked veggies. Canned beans of any sort, cooked carrots, leftover potatoes of any variety as long as they're cooked, etc.
See if you have half an onion. (BONUS: If you know why I'm laughing over the half-an-onion quote, give yourself a pat on the back. If you have no idea why half an onion is funny, go read Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment.)
Root through the drawers to see if there are any raw veggies that would go in soup. Don't overlook spinach, chard, or kale.

Now the fun part happens. Cut the meat and cooked veggies into soup size chunks, if they aren't already. Chop up any raw veggies you have along with the half an onion. Sauté the onion in a tablespoon of butter until soft. Add any raw veggies that need cooking. Add enough water to cover. Simmer until the veggies are tender. Add in the meat and cooked veggies and any gravy you have around. Stir to mix. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you didn't have gravy, add some boullion, chicken flavor is the best because it goes with any meat. Cover and let it simmer for about 10 minutes, until it boils for at least a couple of minutes. Taste again and add more seasonings if needed. Serve with plenty of croutons or garlic bread.

The only thing you need to watch with this soup is that your flavors are at least mostly compatible. Try leftover ham with carrots, potatoes, and green beans or chopped kale. Beef goes with just about everything. Chicken is a little more picky, so choose milder flavored veggies to go with it. Cucumber just doesn't work in soup. Fresh zucchini goes with everything. Don't be afraid to experiment. They're leftovers. You were going to chuck them anyway, weren't you? If it taste horrid, the pizza place is only a few mouse clicks away.

Variation #2
Stone Soup is a fun story. Short version: A guy enters a village. He's starving but no one is willing to share. He sets up a big pot in the center of town, adds water and a big stone. He tells everyone he's making stone soup and it's wonderful. Curious neighbors offer him vegetables/meat/seasonings to add to the soup after he suggests that "___" would really make it better. Villagers and hungry guy end up with a big pot of soup, everyone loves it, he leaves them his magic stone, life is groovy.

Try stone soup at a party sometime. Everyone brings something to add to the stew, whatever they want, no planning ahead here. Mix everything together and let it cook. We ended up with potato and onion soup once, because that's all anyone brought. Another time we had a real wild soup with canned tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, shrimp, and an assortment of other vegetables including corn, green beans, carrots, and chard. Different but tasty.

The trick with this soup if you do it out of your own pantry is to collect all those odds and ends that aren't enough to do anything with; like the stray potato and that one old carrot and the handful of green beans and that freezer-burned steak or that handful of wilted veggies from the dip tray you had at a party three days earlier. If you have enough odds and ends, you end up with a large pot of stew that is never quite the same.

Variation #3
Minestrone is Italian for whatchagot stew. So open the fridge and the pantry and see what 'cha got. Here's a basic recipe, in case you've never made minestrone before.

Necessary ingredients:
1 big can spaghetti sauce
1 medium can tomatoes, whatever variety you have
1 c. dry pasta, whatever is lying around in your cupboards
1 can beans, kidney or pinto preferred, but any bean type will work
1/2 lb hamburger, browned and drained
1/2 an onion, chopped
1 t. dried garlic or garlic powder or use 4 cloves fresh, smashed and chopped
1 t. dried oregano or 2 T. fresh
1 t. dried basil or 2 T. fresh, chopped
2 c. water

Necessary but not particular
2 c. green vegetables - green beans, zucchini, celery, bell pepper, peas, lima beans, or all of them, mix and match to your heart's content
2 c. other vegetables - yellow squash, carrots, eggplant, mushrooms, kale, cabbage, daikon, turnips, potatoes, whatever you've got lying around that needs used

To start: Chop everything into bite size bits. Separate things into three groups: Those that need cooked like raw meat or carrots or potatoes, those that cook very fast like zucchini or mushrooms or daikon or cabbage, and those that are canned or frozen and just need heated like the canned beans or the frozen peas.

Brown the hamburger with the onion and any other vegetable you usually sauté such as fresh garlic, celery, or bell pepper. Don't have hamburger? Use sausage or leftover beef roast or pork chops or anything except fish. Chicken will work in a pinch, but I prefer beef. Make sure it's cooked, or cook it now.

In a large pot, mix the spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, pasta (if it's a sturdy variety like elbow noodles or rotini), and water. Add any veggies that need longer cooking time like raw carrots, potatoes, or turnips. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until the veggies are mostly done. Stir in the meat mixture, spices, and the fast cooking foods (delicate pasta like angel hair can be added here). Cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Then add anything else that just needs heated. If you add spinach, use raw and add it very last. Cook for another 5 minutes until it's hot through. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. If the soup is too thick, add more water to thin it out.

Garnish the soup with parmesan cheese, croutons, garlic toast, crackers, whatever you got that would go with the soup.

That's the basics of whatchagot cooking.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Book Review - mixed bag of ebooks

First off, some of these were given to me free by the authors. Others I found for free. A few I bought. None of these were acquired for the purpose of reviewing. I got them because they sounded like good reads. And they were, or I wouldn't be reviewing them. My whole reason for reviewing books is to share books I enjoyed with you. It's all my opinion, of course.

Rebel Spurs, by Andre Norton

No rockets, no aliens, no magic, no alternate reality, Rebel Spurs is the story of Drew Rennie after the American Civil War. He drifts west, looking for a place to belong and a future. His belongings include two beautiful horses and a letter proving who he is. His father, that he's never met, owns a spread in Arizona beset by Apache raiders, a band of rogue Confederate troops, and a wild stallion that kills his rivals.

With a few broad strokes of her pen, Andre Norton paints a vivid landscape of the American Southwest in the 1860s. She has a gift of words that shines in this novel. Action and suspicion and betrayal, all great themes of any good story, all are present in Rebel Spurs as Drew wrestles with his future and whether to reveal his identity to his father.

This is the sequel to Ride Proud, Rebel. I didn't realize it until I'd already gotten involved in the story. I'm halfway through Ride Proud and enjoying it just as much. I'm not one for westerns, but these are Andre Norton westerns. I love her stories, her characters, everything about these books. I found both free for download through Stanza on my iPod.

Rating: 5 stars (yeah, I'm a fan girl), G (no swearing, some mild violence, great story)

The Watchers from Within Moments, by Mark Paul Jacobs
Smashwords, $0.99
Short story (10k words)
Jim Vedder, chief engineer at California’s FastTech Corporation, has developed the world’s fastest camera. But exploring the bizarre universe of the super fast, soon uncovers horrific entities that captivate the world’s consciousness. And FastTech is quickly, and somewhat unwillingly drawn into a quagmire of politics, fate, and the unforgiving press.

Creepy and shivery, this story left me huddled under the blankets. If you like sunshine and happy flower stories, don't read this one. If you want something to leave you thinking and wondering what is really between moments of reality, and you don't mind being scared and a bit depressed by the ending, read this story. Mark is one of my friends I ran into on BestsellerBound, a great forum for writers and readers and anyone who enjoys discussing writing and reading. He has a gift for twisting words into stories and leaving images in my head. Well worth the ninety-nine cents.

I reviewed his short story, Incident at Walter's Creek, not long ago. Fun scary story, too, although lighter in tone than this one.

Rating: 4 stars, PG for mild language and disturbing images

Tears for Hesh, by Michael Radcliffe
Smashwords, $0.99
Short Story (3250 words)

Set in the world of The Guardian's Apprentice, this is the story of Hesh, a young man who works for a conniving, power-hungry wizard who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Hesh is a gentle giant, towering above others, but soft spoken and afflicted with a stammer when he gets nervous. Sent on an errand for his master, he uncovers a terrible secret and must face the consequences.

Okay, another creepy one but with a different tone than the other two. This one deals with magic and a ruthless wizard who will keep his secrets no matter the cost--to others. I enjoyed the story enough that I am going to have to buy The Guardian's Apprentice, the novel that explains more about the world and the wizards. Michael is another friend from BestsellerBound. You really should check them out here:

Rating: 4.5 stars, PG for mild language and creepy wizards

Sui Generis, by Sharon E. Cathcart
Smashwords, FREE

Author Sharon E. Cathcart ("In The Eye of The Beholder," "Les Pensees Dangereuses") presents a sampler of essays and short fiction. The collection features "Heart of Stone," a short story never previously published.

The first part of this collection are several essays written by Sharon. She expresses her opinions beautifully. Though I may not agree with her political or moral stance, I appreciate her viewpoint and her clarity of vision. She writes without rancor or hatred, a voice of love and tolerance that is needed in our world. If we could all discuss things as she does, we would not have the outrage and anger that marks so many of our political "debates". Even when we don't agree, we can show respect for each other.

The second half of her collection are short stories. I love Heart of Stone. The second story is just as romantic but a lot more cynical in tone.

Try Sharon's writings. You won't regret the time spent with her. And yes, you can find her on BestsellerBound, too. 

Rating: 4.5 stars, PG for adult themes