March 31, 2012

book reviews: march 2012 recap

My Top Read of the Month for March: Suzanne Collins'
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay
Another good month of reading has come and gone. I had the opportunity to read and review several solid books ranging from chick lit to mystery to women's lit to dystopian young adult.

Having more variety on my bookshelf this month was a nice change of pace and an eye-opener. I discovered and enjoyed or loved books that might not have made it into my "read" pile. Trying something new is always a good thing. When you do it with books, you get new ideas, think differently and become an overall better-rounded reader, I think.

I also caught up with the rest of the world and read (or rather inhaled) the Hunger Games trilogy. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or have had lunch/drink/dinner with me in the past few weeks, you are probably sick of hearing me talk about these books. I offer no apology and have no regrets -- these books moved me even more than they entertained me. Who knows how long my gushing will last?

With that, let's take a look back at the books I read and featured on the blog this month.

Chasing China by Kay Bratt
Rating: 4 of 5
A young woman learns about the the roots she does not remember and what it means to who she is now in Kay Bratt's Chasing China. Using the author's personal knowledge an insight about adoption and orphanages in China, the story is an informative and intriguing portrait of of the topic.
Favorable Conditions by Kathleen Kole
Rating: 4.5 of 5
When a devoted mom finds her nest empty and her life dull, she decides to take direction of her life and finds a few unexpected surprises along the way in Kathleen Kole's Favorable Conditions.
Write from the Heart by Heather Hummel
Rating: 4 of 5
In Heather Hummel's Write from the Heart, a woman takes a hard look at her life and what she wants from it after undergoing a break-up from her boyfriend and career.
Death on Heels by Ellen Byerrum
Rating: 4 of 5
Death on Heels, Ellen Byerrum's latest installment in the Crime of Fashion series, forces the main character to reconnect with her past as she attempts to find the truth about a string of murders after her ex-love is charged with the crimes.
Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Top Read of the Month)
Rating: 5 of 5
(I'd give it a 6 if that wouldn't negate my whole rating system. The trilogy is that good.)
Collins built a captivating story about hunger, violence, war and above all else the potential for good in life no matter how bleak circumstances might seem. The books show that people are not always who they seem. That hate can destroy more than your enemies, and love will not not always protect your friends. That human life is precious and fragile. But no matter the outcomes, you have to hope life can be better and good to survive. Bonus: I started a three-week Hunger Games Reading in the Kitchen series yesterday with Peeta's Bread.
Death by Chocolate by Julie Anne Lindsey
Rating: 4 of 5
Julie Anne Lindsey's Death by Chocolate is a quirky story about what happens when a woman is pushed to far. Unexpectedly and unintentionally turned into a murder, the main character Ruby must rely on the help of her best friend Charlotte and son Michael to cover her tracks. Bonus: This one comes with a recipe.
Memoirs of a Mom on the Edge, Part One: Martinis & Menopause by Elizabeth Loan
Rating: 4 of 5
Elizabeth Loan gives a hilarious and relatable glimpse into her life as a mom of five in Memoirs of a Mom on the Edge, Part One: Martinis & Menopause.
Liars Guide to True Love by Wendy Chen
Rating: 4 of 5
Wendy Chen's debut novel Liar's Guide to True Love offers a funny and enjoyable read for wedding and romance addicts alike.
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March 30, 2012

the boy with the bread

Blogger's Note: This is the first in a three-week Reading in the Kitchen series covering foods from Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. As indulgent as it seems to write about food from a trilogy so focused on hunger, I was intrigued by all the foods mentioned in it -- and there are a lot. Stopping at three hardly covers it. 

Read Katniss' Dandelion salad recipe here
Read Mellark Bakery's Apple and Goat Cheese Tart recipe here.


Even before the reaping that sent Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark to the 74th Annual Hunger Games, their lives were connected by a loaf of bread. Bread Peeta purposefully burned to give Katniss and her starving family even though it meant punishment for him.

Though they never exchanged words, Katniss always felt she owed Peeta for his gift. In her eyes this puts them at odds from the get go. Only one person can survive the games. How can she even consider killing the boy with the bread who saved her life?

Throughout the story, Katniss refers to Peeta as the boy with the bread. Other baked goods, wild game and gathered foods appear in the books, but this one was especially important. Katniss describes the loaves as hearty, with raisins and nuts in it. I imagined whole grains, raisins and walnuts, because it sounds super hearty. When I set out to recreate this dish, I kept that description in mind.

Confession: With all the baking I have done in my life, I have never made bread from scratch. I watched my mom do it, I watched our bread machine do it. But aside from quick breads, this was my first encounter with a rising dough. This meant I needed to research bread making or risk blowing it.

The first lesson I learned: If a recipe calls for bread flour, it means bread flour. All purpose does not work as a substitute. Bread flour has a higher concentration of gluten, which creates elasticity in the dough among other things. If you try subbing another kind of flour, you will not have the desired results. Plus, my mom told me I had to use bread flour to make bread. If Mom says it, it must be so.

Imagine my horror when I went to my local grocery store and saw how many options of flour there were. Up until a few months ago, I bought all purpose and only all purpose. Since taking on Reading in the Kitchen, I have branched out and tried others, but I am by no means a pro.

When I finally found a package labeled "bread flour," I was disappointed with it. Not only was it white flour (not what I imagined for this recipe), but it cost several dollars more than all purpose. That went against my instinct to spend as little money as possible to make these dishes. What Would Katniss Do? She'd look for a cheaper alternative.

Fortunately, I found it when Bob's Red Mill came to the rescue. This is by no means an endorsement, and I get nothing for saying it, but I have come to rely on these products lately. They have a lot of whole grain options and come in reasonable package sizes -- ideal when you are a single woman interested in portion control. Plus, while not the the cheapest options on the market, they are reasonable. I spent less than $3 on my flour, which was several dollars less than the alternative.

I settled on the Whole Wheat Bread Mix. In addition to containing wheat flour, sunflower seeds and dry molasses, it also came with a packet of yeast. You can buy these easily enough on their own, but it was nice to have. The rest of the shopping was easy. I picked up a bag of sun-dried raisins and chopped walnuts. Again, I went for the cheapest option in both of these - WWKD, right?

From there, it was easy. I mixed together the dry ingredients, added oil and then warm tap water. Make sure the water is warm, not cold or hot. It activates the yeast. Next, I kneaded the dough, placed it in a covered bowl and let it rise for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, I placed a pizza stone in the oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. That's another tip I learned in my research. When making loaves without a bread pan (which was how I imagined the bread in the book) the pizza stone helps bake the bread evenly. I was excited about this, because my parents gave my a pizza stone two Christmases ago, and I hadn't used it yet. I'm more of a frozen or take-out pizza gal, and I was saving it for a special occasion like this.

After 45 minutes, the dough doubled in size and was ready for baking. I decided to divide the dough into two loaves. When I did a quick search, I found it is best to split the dough before you let it rise. I cut it with a pizza cutter, and didn't have any problems. I formed two loaves and placed them on the pizza stone, which was already heated.

I let it bake for 30 minutes before checking on it. Now, this is the best tip I learned. In addition to giving the loaves a once over or using a food thermometer (which I most certainly don't have) you can also check it by slapping the bread. OK, technically everything I read said you can tap the bread to check, but I interpreted it my way. When you tap the bottom of bread, it will make a thud, like a drum, if done. I decided to cut myself some slack if it was overdone. After all, the bread Peeta gave Katniss was technically burnt.

Sure enough, I bitch slapped the bread and heard the thud. And it wasn't burnt. You can't even imagine how dorky and excited I was. My sister, who was over to try it, gave me plenty of looks that told me I was nuts. But I didn't care. The bread looked beautiful, it smelled fantastic and it was done.

We let the bread cool before digging in, and the effort was totally worth it. I found it delicious, and I hadn't been without food for days like Katniss. It tasted exactly as I imagined: hearty. And I'm glad I love it, because I'll be eating it for the next week. The bread itself was be good, but with the nuts and raisins, it tastes more like a special treat. I wasn't kidding about the heartiness, either. I ate a piece for breakfast yesterday, along with an egg and veggie sausage, and I wasn't hungry until early afternoon. Breads usually speed up my appetite, but not in this case.

Well worth the effort, making this bread was an interesting experience. Not only did I learn a little about the science behind the ingredients, but it gave me time to consider the significance the bread had in the book. Plus, I have a ridiculous crush on Peeta, so the teeny bopper inside of me was happy, too.
Peeta's Bread
Ingredients
19 ounces whole grain wheat bread flour
1 packet bread yeast
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup sun-dried raisins
2 tablespoons cooking oil
11 ounces warm tap water
Cornstarch (to cover surface)

Directions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place pizza stone on top shelf. Mix together the dry ingredients. Add warm tap water to mix and kneed dough. Once it reaches an elastic state, cut into two equal portions. Place in large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise 45 minutes, or until bread doubles in size. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving. Makes two loaves of eight servings each (16 total).
Nutrition
(Per Serving) 177 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein, 5 grams of sugar, 2 grams of fiber.
Don't forget to check back next Friday for another recipe from The Hunger Games.

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March 29, 2012

script frenzy prep


In a few days, the madness that is Script Frenzy begins. This is my first year participating, so I'm guessing it is madness. But after two National Novel Writing Months, I stand by my conjecture.

What does that mean for those of us who plan to crank out 100 pages in 30 days? It means we have three days, counting today, to plan and prepare for the task ahead of us.

I am confident with my approach to this upcoming challenge. I may not hit the 100-page goal, but I know I have a story to tell, and I know how I want it told. I'm a planner by nature. I plot out my stories before I write them, and this script is no different. I have large and small goals and a map to navigate the rocky terrain ahead.

With that in mind, I will share a few of my tips on preparing for Script Frenzy:
  • Project folder. Just like it sounds, I created a physical folder to store all of my prep materials for writing. Being in a folder keeps everything in one place, offers organizational benefits and makes mobile operations easy. You just grab the folder and take it with you wherever you go. I stock up on folders at Back to School sales (along with a few other supplies) every year, which makes it an inexpensive tracking tool. I use this for all of my major writing projects, and it is the heart of my organization.
  • Plot cards. Like with my NaNoWriMo book, I used my beloved note cards to create the story arch for this WIP. My upcoming project is a web series, so each note card (pictured above) represents an episode. On each card, I wrote a few sentences explaining the key plot elements I want reflected in the episode.
  • Character sketches. Another great use for note cards, I wrote basic character descriptions, including personality and appearances, as a reference.
  • Track ideas. Each day that comes closer to Script Frenzy brings me more ideas on how I want to set scenes or write dialogue. Whenever I get an idea I love and want to use, I write it down in the miniature notebook I carry in my purse. (Note, writers, if you don't carry a notebook or writing utensil with you wherever you go, you should start. Inspiration is seldom convenient, and won't wait for you to find a writing implement.)
  • Research. In addition to doing some background research for the story itself, I have invested some time in reading TV scripts. The best way to learn any form of writing is by reading what others have done. I took a TV writing class in college, but that by no means makes me a pro. Neither does reading several scripts, but it gives me more confidence to consider how I will commit words to print. Here's a good tip: mix reading scripts for shows you have and have not seen. Reading the shows you have seen gives you a good idea of how it actually turned out. The shows you have not seen allow you to work that imagination.
What preparation do you like to make before beginning a writing project?

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March 28, 2012

book review: liar's guide to true love

Wendy Chen's debut novel Liar's Guide to True Love offers a funny and enjoyable read for wedding and romance addicts alike.

Cass Handley is good at giving New York brides the wedding day of their dreams. Fun, stylish and complete with a cast of  hilarious and supportive friends and a nutty family, she is a wedding planner star on the rise, it seems she is destined for greatness.

Except when it comes to finding love. For one, she has trouble cutting off ties from an ex. Worse, she has an annoying habit of lying to the men she meets. Most are small fibs, seemingly harmless to men she only dates once or twice (Like saying she went to Mexico with Habitat for Humanity, when she really spent a week there with her family). Though she vows to put an end to her lies, she finds herself making one final big one: telling a wedding hating man otherwise too perfect for words she words in advertising instead of the biz.

Mayhem ensues as Cass navigates the complexities of a budding relationship, suitor from the past and a menagerie of bridezillas.

Though a little too back story heavy from the get-go, Liars eventually found its groove. Once the action was under way, the story had me flipping pages and frequently laughing out loud. With a nice blend of one-liners and long-con jokes, the humor was not forced and flowed well. Weddings gone awry offered plenty of comedy throughout, too.

Cass is a likeable, if sometimes enviable, character. (I pondered how that girl manages to down all of those lattes and takeout orders while managing to look sexy in her clothes as I nibbled on a piece of celery.) Her core group of friends are quirky, supportive and enjoyable to read. They frequently serve as her conscious offering up advice and bickering with each other as they decide Cass' life. Her mom is over-the-top, her sister has more depth than initially thought and her father is sweet.

Then there are the men. Even the ones who do not work out are funny to read. Never mind the new man in her life who had me crushing on him by the end of our -- or rather their -- first date. Watching their relationship develop had a solid mix of will-they-won't-they angst that pushed the story forward.

In addition to the blur of humor and romance, the MC gains valuable lessons about honesty, forgiveness and learning from the past.

Rating: 4 of 5

About the Author:
Wendy Chen writes novels for lovers of chick lit and lighthearted romantic fiction. She began writing Liar's Guide to True Love during her frequent (and sometimes severe) bouts of wedding nostalgia. Years after planning her own nuptials, she still gets unduly giddy about attending weddings.

Wendy was a lifelong New Yorker until she decided to try out suburban life a few years ago. She now lives in Northern Virginia with her family while she works on her next novel.

Connect with Wendy:
http://www.wendychenbooks.com
http://www.facebook.com/wendychenbooks  

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March 27, 2012

get early feedback

I'm on the final stretch of edits for the book I completed earlier this month. I'm pleased to report that overall I am pleased. It flows much better than my first attempt at novelizing from last year, and I don't make the same mistakes I did then. Oh, I still make plenty of them, but I am improving. That's something.

While waiting for the midnight screening of The Hunger Games last Thursday, my sister read through the first five chapters. (I made character sketches for a book a plan to write, eventually. I have a couple ahead of it in the line-up, but I was inspired.)

I'll admit it's hard to sit next to someone when you know she is reading your book. Any time she shows reaction -- good or bad -- you want to know what she read. For the most part, I managed to keep my questions until she finished. And here were a few of her comments after getting through the chapters.

Good and fast-paced opener to draw in the reader.
I like how you give a shout-out to the book that was an
inspiration for this story.
Did you really forget to explain where the MC's father and
sister went? Come on!
You messed up on your word choice here. It's so sad to see.
I can see the start of the love story, and I want to know
what happened and what went wrong.
I like it. I want to keep reading. (Now finish editing.)
OK, so maybe these were a little staged (Did I mention we were at the theater three hours early and perhaps the oldest two people in there?), but she did offer that feedback. The few bits of criticism were good. If she had a question about something that happened, felt it wasn't explained well enough, other readers probably will, too.

What I appreciated most was she said she wanted to keep reading it. That's definitely something. The first novel I wrote was way too heavy at the beginning, which made it difficult for people to push through. She said that wasn't a problem this time. See, I'm growing!

Having someone like my sister, who I trust fully and completely to be honest with me, review my book is completely beneficial. Whether or not you have critique partners, I strongly encourage you to have a couple of friends or family members take a look at the book in its early stages, too. They are representative of your future readers, and their reaction is crucial.

A million thanks to my sister for taking the time to read, and then playing along with the photo shoot!

Your turn to weigh in: What do you look for in critiques?

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March 26, 2012

book review: memoirs of a mom on the edge, part one: martinis & menopause

Elizabeth Loan gives a hilarious and relatable glimpse into her life as a mom of five in Memoirs of a Mom on the Edge, Part One: Martinis & Menopause.

Even if you are like me and not a mom -- unless you count my ridiculous cats, but let's not, because that's sad -- this book was a fun and quick read perfect for a Saturday morning on the patio.

Based on posts from her hilarious blog, Loan shares episodes from her life, such as going against her lifelong promises to buy name brand foods and becoming a generic food junkie and more. Anyone who has ever lived with a man, whether he is your father, brother, husband, children or roommate, will enjoy this. (Like when she mentioned the infamous pee puddles that seem to spring up around boys' toilets. Barf.)

In addition to sharing stories about her present day life as a moment, she also pays homage to her youth, which involves spending one year on the road traveling Europe with her parents and family.

Well told, funny and a quick read, women -- and maybe some of you self-aware men -- should find this a worthwhile use of a couple of hours.

Rating: 4 of 5


For more information about the author, check out: 
http://www.ebloan.com


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March 23, 2012

death by chocolate, hold the poison


Who doesn't love a little Death by Chocolate? The frequently used marketing term lures chocolate lovers every where in to spending a few dollars, and calories, on a piece (or 10) of heaven.

When I found out one of my writer tweeps had a book coming out with that same title, I was thrilled.  Julie Anne Lindsey's Death by Chocolate hit the stores last week, and I was fortunate enough to receive an advanced reader copy to indulge my curiosity.

I quickly discovered that I love baking almost as much as the perfect housewife-turned killer Ruby from the story.Who knew I could have the same taste for baked goods as a crazed murderer? With the thought of poisoned chocolate mousses and puff pastries on my mind, I dusted off my apron and went back to the kitchen.

Today's recipe is for Chocolate Zucchini Muffins inspired from the book. Only I didn't lace them with any potential toxins that might inadvertently take out a massive group of people with them. This dish is super easy to make and yields delicious results. Plus, most of the ingredients were items I already had in my pantry. What could be better?

Ingredients:
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups grated zucchini
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (You can sub equal portions of ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and ground cloves if you don't keep this in stock like I do.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease or line two muffin pans.

Combine the ingredients in the order they appear in a large mixing bowl. Once well mixed, spoon equal portions into the muffin tins.

Place the muffin tins in oven and cook for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from muffin tins and allow to cool before serving.

Despite the high sugar and cocoa, these muffins aren't too terrible, coming in at about 200 calories if you care about that. There might be a way of making it with less sugar and fewer calories, but if you want delicious, stick to this.

Yesterday, I took these to the office. Compared to other things I have made and shared, these were pretty popular. My boss ate two, and I received emails from a few co-workers asking for the recipe (here it is if you want it).

I think Ruby would have been proud of me.

Review:

Step aside Martha and Abby Brewster, there is a new murdering homemaker in town.

Julie Anne Lindsey's Death by Chocolate is a quirky story about what happens when a woman is pushed to far. Unexpectedly and unintentionally turned into a murder, the main character Ruby must rely on the help of her best friend Charlotte and son Michael to cover her tracks.

The story pays homage to Arsenic and Old Lace, one of my favorite plays, and was well worth the time I spent reading it.


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March 22, 2012

hunger games mania

May the odds be ever in your favor. No, seriously. If you're
a teenager going to this same midnight showing and you plan
to talk or be ridiculous throughout, you better believe the odds
won't be in your favor for long. I kid. Or do I? Your gamble.

I arrived late, but I'm on The Hunger Games bandwagon.

By now enough has been said that you don't need me to explain why these books are an international phenomenon. But they meant so much to me, and have affected my journey as a writer, that I want to talk about them. So please indulge me.

For two years, my friend/local bookstore manager encouraged me to the read the series convinced I would love every second. I had it on my to-do list, but never followed up.

There the book sat on my "to read" list for years. Then, after overhearing people talk about it in stores and restaurants with weeks to go until the movie, I realized I needed to read it before I found out anything else.

What did I have to lose? I figured if I didn't love the first book, I didn't have to read the second or third. And no one had to know.

Love is an understatement for my experience reading the trilogy. I inhaled all three, sleeping four hours between two nights to read them as quickly as I could. They're that good. I promise you. I have never regretted a moment of that lost sleep. The characters are intriguing, the story often horrifying but the message crucially important.

These books are now a full-blown obsession for me. I can't stop thinking about them. They pop into my head while driving. I'll contemplate a theme at lunch. My subconscious even plays over them in my sleep. (Fortunately just the running away, hiding and searching for food. I don't know if I could handle the killings.)

The stories provoke thought and discussion. In the weeks since reading, I have spent hours discussing the books and their themes with people who have and have not read it. And as I said, I spend a lot of time mulling it over in my head. Each day brings a new thought or interpretation, because there are so many layers.

Suzanne Collins is brilliant. I have read in a few articles that the idea for the story came to her when flipping through the TV late at night. On one channel, people were competing on a reality show. On another, they were going to war. As a writer, I both admire and envy the crap out of her. I have a total author crush on her. She makes me want to be a better writer and tell stories that matter.

Collins built a captivating story about hunger, violence, war and above all else the potential for good in life no matter how bleak circumstances might seem. The books show that people are not always who they seem. That hate can destroy more than your enemies, and love will not not always protect your friends. That human life is precious and fragile.

But no matter the outcomes, you have to hope life can be better and good to survive.

That's what it comes down to for me, and the reason I'm still obsessing. It made me stop to consider the potential for bad and good in our world, and the opportunity each of us has to affect it. That's a serious impact for any series -- young adult or not.

Collins writes well. Each book is fast-paced, and I had few, if any, complaints about the writing. She left me with several phrases that keep bouncing through my head. Essentially, she did a stunning job, thus my author envy.

Katniss is an intriguing and multidimensional character. I found myself caught between admiration and frustration with many of her decisions. But I loved every moment of her journey and always cheered for her. When she did well, I was happy. When things went wrong, my heart broke for her. That's a good character.

Plus, this trilogy gave me new crushes. Not only do I have a massive author crush on Suzanne Collins, but my heart now belongs to Peeta Mellark. The boy with the bread. I've made peace with the fact that it's creepy for a 25-year-old to crush on a 16- and 17-year-old boy. And, I figure he'll get older, right?

My sister and I are going to the movie tonight. I am excited to see Hollywood's take on it. Film adaptations often disappoint book lovers. Even with that in mind, I still have every hope it will be awesome. Early reviews are positive. As of 10 p.m. CDT yesterday, Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 90 percent overall based on 97 reviews, and 83 percent from 24 top critics. Those numbers don't necessarily mean I'll love it or hate it, but they are promising. I'm cautiously optimistic.

What I most care about, is that I leave the movie feeling and thinking the way I have after the books. That is what matters most: that the message and themes get across to viewers.

(Plus I want to see how my new 19-is-legal-but-too-young-for-me crush Josh Hutcherson does as my he's-definitely-too-young-for-me-but-would-have-been-my-soulmate-nine-years-ago crush Peeta.)

Now it's your turn: Is anyone else going to see The Hunger Games? Have you read the books? What did you think?

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March 20, 2012

script frenzy: i'm in


Novelists know November is National Novel Writing Month, but April gives screenwriters an opportunity to build their page count with Script Frenzy.

Because I love a challenge, love punishing myself — and am frankly a little crazy — I'm making 2012 my debut year as a Script Frenzy participant. The plan: write 100 pages in 30 days. I signed up yesterday and for better or worse, I'm in.

I took a screenwriting class in college, but since then my writing has been limited to my blog, novel and job. I'm excited to use this as another opportunity for expressing my creativity. I loved my previous experiences writing scripts. Film tells stories in a different way than books do. Each has its merits. I hope that by the time April 30 rolls around, I not only have the page counts, but a positive experience writing in a different format.

I am a firm believer that writing in different formats and styles will ultimately make me a better writer in general. Plus, I just really want to write a script.

This will also be a chance for me to try something different while a few friends critique the novel I finished earlier this month. (I'm almost done with my edits!)
But why Script Frenzy? Because I have done NaNoWriMo twice, and both times it got my butt into gear and forced me to write. Even if I don't hit 100 pages by April 30, at least I went for it.


Taking the advice of a previous Script Frenzy participant, I will use this experience to work on a web series I've wanted to write for a few months. Now, I'll be doing this as a bit of a rebel. I've written part of an episode, but I have another 100 pages to go to finish the series.

I'm well into the planning process. I'll be sure to share any tips I come across, which you might be able to use, too. 

Anyone else thinking to do Script Frenzy this year? If so, look me up and add me as a buddy: elle.chapman. Best of luck to all! 

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March 19, 2012

how to write a mystery


Blogger's Note: I am pleased to welcome Ellen Byerrum, author of the Crime of Fashion series, as part of the blog tour for her latest installment: Death on Heels. As someone who dreams of one day writing legit mysteries, I appreciate Ellen indulging me and sharing some of her tips for writing an awesome mystery.

(Read my review of Death on Heels here.)

By Ellen Byerrum
Guest blogger

Some people might say: The same way you plan a murder. But that would be wrong, because in a murder mystery, you have think about everyone who might be implicated, every suspect with means, motive, and opportunity, every witness with a piece of the puzzle, every investigative angle, every twist and turn of the plot. Planning an actual murder is easier.  Theoretically. Well, maybe not, what with all the moral rot you’ve got there. And we’re only talking about planning here, not doing.

Where do you start?  Believe it or not, I’ve met many writers who began their first book because they someone needed to die, at least on paper. Usually it involved their boss, a coworker or a family member. They planned the murder meticulously and painfully and fictionally, thereby releasing their anger in a satisfying and safe venue. Now, forever after, they can look at the fool who signs their paycheck and snicker at their secret payback. I got you, you worm! If only you knew!

These writers say no one would ever guess who the victim is. They’ve disguised their evil boss or cranky coworker or wicked third cousin so well, or else they know the guy just can’t, or won’t, read books. Many a writer has turned his evil boss into a killer who can be caught and publicly shamed, and possibly dispatched, preferably painfully and with poetic justice. How many employers have died (in fiction) for someone else’s art? I have no idea. Probably a lot. But villains and victims can be inspired by anyone, from the bully who tormented you in high school to the jerk who cuts you off in the parking lot.  And before anyone jumps to a conclusion, that’s NOT the way I write a book. I’m just saying that’s what I’ve heard.

However, planning a mystery, finishing it, and pulling it off takes work and dedication—not just a workplace grudge—to produce between 300 and 400 pages of double-spaced manuscript.

Many writers come to the craft of mystery writing as voracious mystery readers. I believe much of the structure—the victims, suspects, red herrings, killers, and timing—is best absorbed through reading hundreds and hundreds of mysteries and thrillers. And we don’t consciously follow a plan.

Some of us use outlines. Because of my contract, I am required to submit an outline, which must be approved by my editor. However, writing an outline is tricky business. An outline can take away a lot of the energy of writing, and the final book will always deviate from the outline anyway. New ideas, characters, plot twists will occur as you’re writing and might take you in unexpected directions.

I first learned how to structure a mystery by writing audience-participation murder mystery plays for a local theatre. The easiest way for me was to write it backwards from the climax, to start with the killer and the victim and the murder. There were a finite number of suspects, determined by how many actors I had to work with. Each actor had to have their big moment, so I had to balance their motives and opportunities and make each a plausible killer with convincing clues. It was great experience.

When I write my crime of fashion mysteries, the action swirls around Lacey Smithsonian, a fashion reporter in Washington, D.C., the City Fashion Forgot. I have a background in playwriting and news reporting. From playwriting, I learned about character development, voice, and story arc. From reporting, I learned how to write on deadline, how to write a brief story, and how to listen for the great quote. I consider the two disciplines the best possible background for me for writing my books.

The rest is all putting it down, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  The funny thing about writing is that I always think it will be easier—louder, faster, funnier—with each book. But it never is. On the other hand, writing about Lacey Smithsonian is always an adventure. Because every book is different, I wind up learning a lot more than I planned on.

Like how to dispatch yet another villain ever new and different ways…

Email me at lmchap@gmail.com by 11:59 p.m. CDT March 31 for your chance to win a print copy of this book! Include your name and mailing address with the subject line "Death on Heels Giveaway." The winner will be selected April 1. Best luck to all. (Open to U.S. and Canada readers only.

Author Bio:
Ellen Byerrum writes the popular Crime of Fashion mysteries, set in bustling Washington, D.C., The City That Fashion Forgot. Featuring style sleuth Lacey Smithsonian, who solves crimes with fashion clues, the eighth book, Death on Heels, takes Lacey out of her comfort zone and into the Wild West where she confronts her past and an old boyfriend who is accused of murder.

While researching fashion, Byerrum has collected her own assortment of 1940s vintage dresses and suits, and the occasional accessory, but laments her lack of closet space. She has been a D.C. news reporter in Washington, a playwright, and holds a Virginia P.I. registration. Although she currently resides in Denver, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian will continue to be based in Washington, D.C.

Byerrum is currently at work on the ninth book in the Crime of Fashion series, Veiled Revenge. You can find more about Ellen on her website or on Facebook.
www.ellenbyerrum.com 
www.facebook.com/EllenByerrum
http://www.mysterybooksellers.com/imba-members

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March 18, 2012

book review: death on heels

Death on Heels, Ellen Byerrum's latest installment in the Crime of Fashion series, forces the main character to reconnect with her past as she attempts to find the truth about a string of murders after her ex-love is charged with the crimes.
When fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian moved to Washington, D.C., from rugged, small town Sagebrush, Colorado, she thought she’d never look back. But when her former boyfriend, cattle rancher Cole Tucker, is arrested for the murders of three women, Lacey digs her cowboy boots out of her closet and hops on the next plane.

She is certain of Tucker’s innocence, until he abducts her during a daring courthouse escape. Is Tucker capable of murder, too? Or is there a larger conspiracy in the small town? Lacey needs to rustle up all the help she can get for this case before her old flame is snuffed out for good...
Though a little slow to get to action, Lacey's misadventure picks up after she arrives in Sagebrush. A funny and likeable character, she acts as a solid guide for the audience to navigate the story. While distinguishing between the truth and lies related to the case, the character also balances her fashion job back in D.C., and her personal and romantic relationships.

The secondary characters are also well done. From her quirky friends and family members to the shady people she meets along the way, the cast pushes the story forward. I especially enjoyed the early scenes that puts Lacey, her mother and sister together. Anyone with family can appreciate the mix of annoyance, frustration and love that comes with the territory.

Byerrum also sets up a nice romantic puzzle for Lacey, as she deals with her sexy ex from the past and the hunky boyfriend of her present. Fans of romance and mystery will find this a good blend of both.

This was my first in the Crime of Fashion series, and I would definitely check out the others in the series. Especially for the next book based on how things were left in this one...

Check back tomorrow for a guest post from the author.

Email me at lmchap@gmail.com by 11:59 p.m. CDT March 31 for your chance to win a print copy of this book! Include your name and mailing address with the subject line "Death on Heels Giveaway." The winner will be selected April 1. Best luck to all. (Open to U.S. and Canada readers only.)

Rating: 4 of 5

Author Bio:
Ellen Byerrum writes the popular Crime of Fashion mysteries, set in bustling Washington, D.C., The City That Fashion Forgot. Featuring style sleuth Lacey Smithsonian, who solves crimes with fashion clues, the eighth book, Death on Heels, takes Lacey out of her comfort zone and into the Wild West where she confronts her past and an old boyfriend who is accused of murder.

While researching fashion, Byerrum has collected her own assortment of 1940s vintage dresses and suits, and the occasional accessory, but laments her lack of closet space. She has been a D.C. news reporter in Washington, a playwright, and holds a Virginia P.I. registration. Although she currently resides in Denver, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian will continue to be based in Washington, D.C.

Byerrum is currently at work on the ninth book in the Crime of Fashion series, Veiled Revenge. You can find more about Ellen on her website or on Facebook.
www.ellenbyerrum.com 
www.facebook.com/EllenByerrum
http://www.mysterybooksellers.com/imba-members

Receive Change the Word's latest updates in your Inbox. Subscribe by entering your information under "Follow by email" in the sidebar. Follow me on Twitter @lmchap or "Like" Change the Word on Facebook.

March 15, 2012

changing focus

Thought I would give you an update on my writing world lately. As previously mentioned, I finished the first draft of my latest work in progress about 10 days ago. I have gone through part of it, tidying up sentences and thoughts, moving around sections and even deleting and replacing parts to make sure it works. It is a gratifying process, but a scary one, because now I know that in a few days I will hand it over to a few of my friends for critiques.

But even while that goes on, my mind is also kept busy plotting and planning the next projects I will work on.

Story ideas are not difficult for me to come by. Every time I have one, no matter how big or small, I write it down.When I come up with more ideas later, I add it to the notes I have for it. I have imaged dozens of stories I want to write, but today I am comfortable with more than 20 of them. I have a mix of series and single titles running through my head. Most are adult, but I even have a few young adult books. They cross genres, apparently a big no-no for branding that I choose to ignore.

At the pace I am going, if I continue writing one a year, I will have material until I am 50. That's if I never have another story idea again. I don't plan to keep going that slowly. I can't afford to, really.

What can I do to give those ideas life sooner than later?

There is no simple answer, at least not one I know. The only way to do it, is to keep writing. Keep trying. Keep creating. Take it one project at a time, without forgetting the other ideas. Those characters depend on me to have life, right?

I have a clear plan for the book I will write next. I started a new series of note cards, post-it notes and vision boards to plan the story and the characters. It is an exciting time in the process, my favorite by far. I'm using methods of discussed before by targeting the rising action and saving photos that give me a visual of my story's world.

It can be challenging to find the time to do it. I work a full-time job, I have one or two books to read and review weekly (Not to mention the ones I do for fun -- I read the Hunger Games trilogy earlier this week and my mind is still blown, but that's another story). I can list other obstacles that get in the way of giving me time to work, but there is no point. I just have to make the time, right?

One way I like to keep my focus on my story wherever I am, is by carrying around a small notebook and pen in my purse. Combined with my iPhone, I have resources that enable me to jot down ideas as I have them. Sometimes I write a few ideas for plot lines. Other times, I might write lines of dialogue. Regardless of what I do, it keeps me thinking about my story, and I can do it whenever I have a few moments to spare.

Like I said, this is an exciting time. I'm story-telling, and that's the best.

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March 14, 2012

interview with the author of 'write from the heart'

I'm pleased to welcome Heather Hummel, author of Write from the Heart and one of my favorite writer Tweeps. After reviewing her novel yesterday, I'm pleased to have her here for an interview.

Heather, thanks for joining us, today, as part of your blog tour.

Change the Word: In Write from the Heart, both Samantha and Amanda use words to help them make changes with their lives. How did you come up with this idea?
Heather Hummel: I’m a strong believer in the power of words and believe that how we use them has a great impact on the outcome of our lives. As a writer, being able to express this belief through my characters, especially Samantha in Write from the Heart, has been a fictional way of showing just how powerful words¾be them spoken or thoughts¾can be, and that changing our “mantras” from negative to positive can change our lives. 

CTW: Samantha uses journals as part of her self discovery. Do you or have you ever kept a journal?  
HH: Yes, I’ve kept journals since middle school. I know many young women keep journals, but I think it’s rare for them to use them consistently throughout life. I have every journal I’ve ever written and can’t imagine parting with them. A good friend of mine knows where to find them should anything ever happen to me!

CTW:
You're considered a “Photonovelist.” Can you tell me a little more about what that means?
HH: When I was in high school, my three favorite classes were English (of course), Photography and Oceanography. As of late, I’ve been finding myself with my camera in hand just as much as my pen (laptop). When I started posting the results of my image capturing adventures on Facebook, the response was overwhelmingly favorable…people were posting praise in comments and even sending me private messages about how seeing my photographs made their day. It dawned on me one day that a photojournalist captures images about news related topics. Alternatively, I tend to capture images that go along with my novels. My characters are women who are emotionally deep, down to earth, and relatable, much like the seascape and landscape photography I do. Because of this, I’ve labeled myself a “Photonovelist”¾no, that’s not a real word, but as a photographer who tells stories through her images and creates images through her stories, it made sense to use this term to best describe what I do.

CTW: In what circumstances can photos tell a story better than words?
HH: I belong to some great photography sites, including Fotoblur, where hundreds of photos are loaded each day by some amazing photographers. It always intrigues me to see which photos get the Fotoblur version of “Likes” because clearly each one tells a different story. When an image touches hundreds of people (who all click Like, which is really an up arrow), there has to be something there that resonates with humans as a whole, whereas it’s no longer about our individual stories, but a collective one. How we see an image and transfer the knowledge or wisdom that comes from it differs from person to person, and in many ways, the colors, textures, and subject can say so much more than a writer can in an entire chapter. This is why I love doing both photography and writing. Some stories are meant to be told through images and others through words. We’re all still kids at heart and getting joy out of a picture never grows old.

CTW:
I'll admit I'm not the best photographer. One thing I struggle with is making sure the backgrounds of my subject don't conflict with the subject of my photo. What should I do to get past that?
HH: It takes practice, like any other art, to see the entire frame as your capturing an image ¾ not just your subject. How many pictures do you see of people out to dinner where the glasses of wine in the foreground become the subject more than the people? Then when they’re posted on Facebook, it looks like too much drinking going on! Take time to look through the lens at the entire frame, not just the subject, and ask yourself, “Do I really want that in this picture?” For example, a refrigerator with kids’ drawings and magnets is not a good background for a professional image! Taking the time to do it right is worth the extra minute to move the glasses from the table or the subject away from the fridge. I once wrote an article on my blog about author photos. I see so many that have unprofessional backgrounds, making them look “homemade” and, therefore, “self published.”

Here’s a quick tip: One way to reduce the busyness of the image is to reduce the depth of field. In simple terms, if you can control your aperture (which most point and shoots don’t let you, but a DSLR will), the higher the f-stop number, the greater the depth of field, which means everything will be sharp. But, the lower the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, giving you a blurred background and the subject is then more prominent. If you have a point and shoot and are not able to control depth of field, try finding backgrounds that are in the distance and they should be a bit blurred since most point and shoots use an average depth of field setting. It’s the close up backgrounds that will remain sharp and creating too much to focus on.

CTW: Here's a question from Twitter: What lighting techniques can you share with us?
HH: Lighting is hands down the trickiest part of photography to learn. Back lighting, especially, is troublesome to many beginning photographers. The best way to combat back lighting issues, and thereby not creating an unwanted silhouette, is to use a flash or reflector on the subject to create balance in the lighting environment. Clearly, moving the subject is the best way, but if the background is a must have, either capture the image at a time of day when the lighting is better, or compensate by forcing your flash (in daylight) to trigger. Be aware that a close up photo with a flash can be too much light. Instead, try stepping back a bit from your subject (giving the flash less power), and then use the zoom feature to zoom back in.

Bonus tip for iPhone users: One thing a lot of people with iPhones don’t realize is that when in camera mode, they can simply touch the screen where they want the camera to expose for. For example, in an outdoor picture of a person, touch the screen where the person is standing and it will compensate for them rather than the bright sky. I taught this to a couple I met on a hike one day and she was amazed by the difference it made. iPhones also have HDR option. High Dynamic Range gives light a whole new look in your images! Play with both features.

CTW: Another Twitter question: What is your favorite lens for food shots?
HH: I haven’t done a lot of food shots since I tend to do mostly landscapes and portraits. But, I am starting to do more weddings with my business partner Kevin Askeland (Mantel Piece Images), and see a lot of wedding cakes in our future ¾ both on the table and in happy couple’s faces! My tendency would be to go with a wide angle, or perhaps a 50 mm, since likely there will be long spreads of food. I use an 18-135 mm lens as my catch-all, but will be picking up a straight wide angle for most of these images. Kevin uses a wide variety of lenses as well. Between the two of us, we’re ready for any wedding or event, and the colorful food will be half the fun.

CTW: Aside from being a fabulous author and photographer, you are also a celebrity ghostwriter. What's that like?
HH: It’s the most challenging part of my writing career yet. Creating a book in the voice of someone you don’t know personally, that you have to get to know in order to do the book justice, as well as all of the research that goes with the territory, makes for quite the journey. It can be both rewarding and frustrating. I just ghostwrote a book for a company about online dating that I’m really excited to see the results of. When it’s released, I can share more, but this book is one I’m especially proud to have been a part of. Being a ghostwriter has exposed me to a lot of fascinating experiences, all of which I’ve grown and learned from.

CTW: Any advice you can offer aspiring authors struggling to get their ideas on page?
HH: I tend to follow the lead of George Martin, the Beatles producer, who discourages artists from entering the field of music. When asked why he would discourage aspiring musicians, he simply responded, “Because if you can be discouraged, you should be discouraged.” Those words say a lot¾we all have obstacles to overcome, including writers’ block, but only those who persevere will make it and what that means to each individual is different.

To overcome writers’ block, find a muse. For me, cycling and photography are my muses. I’ve had many ideas for books, chapters, and characters come to mind while I’m pedaling down the road. In fact, my book GO BIKE & Other Signs from the Universe is about all of the license plates that I’d see on my bike rides. Naturally, it was on a bike ride that I thought I needed to record them and put them into a book. Most ideas come when you’re not facing the blank screen. Give yourself permission to do something else and allow the ideas to come to you that way. It works if you take the pressure off yourself and allow the ideas to come.

Thank you so much for having me as a guest!

About the Author
Heather Hummel is a "photonovelist" who blends her love for photography with her award-winning career as an author. Her published works include:
Journals from the Heart Series:
Whispers from the Heart (2011)
Write from the Heart (2011)
Nonfiction
GO BIKE & Other Signs from the Universe (2011)
Gracefully: Looking and Being Your Best at Any Age (McGraw-Hill, 2008),
Essays:
Messages of Hope and Healing ( Sunpiper Media, 2006)
Blue Ridge Anthology (Cedar Creek, 2007) with David Baldacci and Rita Mae Brown
Awards:
2009 Mature Media Awards, Merit Award
2009 New York Book Festival, Honorable Mention

Heather's books have appeared in newspapers such as: Publishers Weekly, USA Today and the Washington Post; and in magazines that include: Health, Body & Soul, First, and Spry Living, a combined circulation of nearly 15 million. A graduate with High Distinction from the University of Virginia, Heather holds a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree with concentrations in English and Secondary Education. She is currently earning a Ph.D. in Metaphysical Sciences.

Visit Heather’s website at http://www.heatherhummel.net/
Like Heather’s Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/heatherhummelfanpage
Follow Heather on Twitter @HeatherHummel
http://twitter.com/HeatherHummel

Receive Change the Word's latest updates in your Inbox. Subscribe by entering your information under "Follow by email" in the sidebar. Follow me on Twitter @lmchap or "Like" Change the Word on Facebook.