When Literary Agents Wave the Red Flag

D.J. Lutz:

Although I have been woefully behind in my reading the blogs of the cadre of fine writers on my “favorites” list, I do see their partial posts via my iPhone. Thusly, I know many of them are at the point of submitting their manuscript to agents and publishers. Here’s some great insight, from an insider. In a nutshell – you may not be as unqualified as you may have been led to believe. Enjoy!

Originally posted on The Daily Dahlia:

It’s been almost a full year now since I signed with my agent, but the thing about querying is, if you did it for long enough, I’m not sure you ever forget what it was like.

Me? I did it on and off for four years.

I got something like ten rejections on my first ms before I stopped (not that I’d normally advise giving up after that low a number, it’s just that it was far more of a “market timing” thing – NA! – than anything else), fifty before shelving the second one (what, until my most recent ms, was “the book of my heart”), and then was very lucky to find my agent through The Writer’s Voice contest with my third, for which I only sent about five queries.

That adds up to a whole lotta two things: 1) Research 2) Rejections

When I queried the first…

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The New Weekly Writing Plan

It’s been a while since I have spent time with WordPress; not your fault, it’s me, not you. No, really. Me. The whole way.

So where have I been? No, not jail. In fact, here’s a quick recap of my life since we last met:

Writing, work, family, writing, work, family, writing, work, family. (Just kidding. Food was in there, too. And wine, but I digress.)

So where are we at with the novel? In the process of rewriting the completed “Apple Pie Alibi” from third person into first person. It’s going slower than I anticipated since I am also reading it out loud as I go.

By the way: reading your work out loud is a great way to spot poor writing. Just saying.

This week’s writing plan? More of the same. Writing from 5:00 – 6:30 AM; work from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Add in an hour commute on both ends and I’m left with a few hours with the family. On the weekends, I try to spend time on Saturdays reading the works of others (Book Country gives me an ample supply of emerging novels.)  Sundays? A day of church and rest. Except today…

New agenda items: I’ve added my Twitter feed. Between that platform and the FB page, you can stay up to the minute on my culinary exploits and writing progress. For more details on the cooking, see the new page above, Exploding Potatoes!

Enough for now. With diligence, the rewrite will be done by the end of April. Then it’s decision time: query or self publish? Thankfully, I’ve got time to ponder that one.

Until next time, keep writing, everyone. If we don’t, who will?

 

Cuban Style Black Beans

Cuban style Black Beans

Cuban style Black Beans

The problem with being a writer is that writing mandates sedentary activity. Is that an oxymoron? If you think about it, even as active as he was, Hemingway couldn’t type while watching out for stray bulls skulking around the streets of Pamplona, could he?

It’s worse for those of us who write about food.

If I’m writing, I’m sitting. If I’m researching, I’m eating. Thus the problem.

As I keep working on the revisions for The Apple Pie Alibi, a culinary-based, cozy mystery using the locked room murder format (in case you had forgotten,) I have started to read a new book – Eat to Live, written by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D. More on the book later, but I also had Dr. Fuhrman’s accompanying cookbook of the same title. And with a church pot luck today, I needed to cook something.

Hmm. Need to cook something. Brand new cookbook. You get the picture.

This is my version of Cuban style black beans. It is vegetarian friendly; and slightly different than the recipe found in the book. The published recipe is fine, I’m sure. I just didn’t have all of the ingredients, so I had to make do with what I had.

Place the following into a large crock pot / slow cooker:

3 large cans of cooked black beans, drained.

1 cup water

2 fresh tomatoes, seeded and rough chopped

1 large sweet onion, peeled and diced

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

2 cloves of garlic, pressed (or finely minced if you haven’t a garlic press)

1 Tablespoon of cumin

1 Tablespoon of dehydrated cilantro (use a few sprigs of fresh cilantro if you can get them. It’s out of season on my back porch right now.)

1 teaspoon of black pepper

1 good slosh of sherry vinegar, about a shot glass’ worth

Mix well, cover, and cook on low heat for at least 8 hours. Stir occasionally.

Need more heat? Add a tablespoon of cayenne pepper or jerk seasoning. Or both.

Need meat? Add a cup of diced ham. Maybe some chopped pineapple, too; although that has nothing to do with meat. It just might taste good.

Enjoy!

(Normally this would pair well with a Cuba Libre, but given our event was a church luncheon, iced tea worked very well instead.)

 

 

 

The Process of Writing

sometimes involves research; it always involves reading. So if you have been wondering where I have been lately, you’re correct – I’ve been in Mexico.

Mexico?

Yes, that Mexico. I had been finding the piles of snow very distracting, so thanks to some very good friends with a spare room in their condo, we took a week off from the real jobs and spent the past week enjoying margaritas on the beach as house guests two blocks away from the beach in Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun.

In addition to trying my skill at napping in a hammock (I do this well once in, but getting out is another story,) I found time to read a few more chapters of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, a great textbook on the structure of the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey.

I couldn’t ignore my culinary research, so each day was spent searching out local or regional cuisine. And chocolate. As for the former, I’m talking Mayan specialties like Huarache de Nopal, a fabulous plate of nopal cactus smothered with mushrooms, squash blossoms, spinach, chaya and panela cheese.  The latter? Homemade chocolate mousse; excellent cake, petit fours galore and even modern versions of traditional Mayan chocolate drinks. For those who know me, we didn’t hit the Starbucks for a Cafe Mocha until the last day. That should tell you something about the variety of food and drink available in the little beach town. Recipes will be posted soon enough.

The novel? It has been getting some good reviews amongst the peer group. I am now drafting a second version, telling the story in first person instead of third. The first chapter has been met with much more enthusiasm. Is this a good move? Who knows. In the end I may have two full versions of the same story. But that’s okay. It’s all part of the process of writing.

I hope your writing is on track and where you want it to be. If not, maybe you need a “research trip.” May I suggest a little town on the Mexican Riviera? The sunrise is something to behold!

Sunrise at Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Sunrise at Playa del Carmen, Mexico

 

Of French Fries, Milk Shakes & Peer Reviews

Just have time for a quick note. The snow is starting to fall and before you know it, we’ll be stuck in the house, watching the news on the television as reporters comment on the crazy drivers trying to negotiate slick roadways. I can only imagine the zombie apocalypse that will occur if we receive more than the expected 6 – 8 inches of snow.

Yup. We in coastal Virginia are wimps when it comes to snow.

Anyhow, took a big step in my venture as a writer. As some of you know, I participated as a beta tester for Penguin’s Book Country (their answer to Amazon’s CreateSpace.)  After some initial angst between Book Country (them) and writers (us) it looks like things have evened out and more writers are starting to use the site. The site administrator does an excellent job, as well, with regard to tech support and moderating the site in general. I speak from experience. You don’t need to know the gory details, just know that it pays to read the directions sometimes.

I have just successfully posted my Nanowrimo novel, The Apple Pie Alibi, into Book Country for peer review. It’s like asking for other writers to be your beta readers. Was this a good idea? Not sure yet. I know what “I” think the book needs, but I am interested to see if others think the same – or if I totally missed something.

Are we to the point of indie-publishing yet?

No. But we have made a pretty big step in that direction. Putting your words out for peer review is like dipping French fries into a milk shake. At face value, one would ask – why? What good could possibly come from this? But for those who step out there, away from the comfortable norms of food separation, you take the risk and reap the reward – in this case enjoying the entire sweet & salty dance on your taste buds. Next time you post your novel for peer review, go visit a [insert name of nutritionally suspect, fast food establishment here] and order a large fry and a vanilla shake. Live like the snow won’t stop falling. And hold the ketchup.

It’s not a just dessert; it is a just reward!

 

Creating memorable writing (without losing your head)

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr. Bond; I expect you to die.”

A memorable line from a classic James Bond movie, Goldfinger. The rest of the script? It’s good. Makes a great movie. Worthy of a Pulitzer? Probably not, but it gets the job done. (Having Sean Connery read doesn’t hurt, either.)

Every Bond script has that one carefully crafted, sometimes cheesy, but always memorable line. Good novels have the same sort of thing. Hemingway, being Hemingway, had dozens of such lines in The Old Man and the Sea. I am fond of ” The sail was patched with flour sack and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” Love it.

Of course the Ian Fleming series is in the thriller genre, and the man himself had once outlined his thoughts on what requisite literary boxes needed to be checked to be successful in that universe. I am more of a mystery guy, a mashup of Agatha and Stout – Rex Stout. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

To wit: I have my culinary murder mystery, The Apple Pie Alibi. The first draft is being read, and I anticipate making corrections and clarifications soon. But what are my epic lines? What does my protagonist say that will stick with the reader for years, decades, perhaps, after the reader experiences the joy of eating fried chicken on a stick or a bourbon-infused chocolate pecan pie parfait?

Obviously I need to keep working.

But first, to give my reader a fair amount of time to get through the novel, I will be reading through an excellent set of writing resources, courtesy of the Mystery Writers of America. Check it out if you have time. And like someone else once said – “I’ll be back.”

 

Plan B Hash Brown Breakfast Casserole

D.J.'s "Plan B" Hash Brown Breakfast Casserole

D.J.’s “Plan B” Hash Brown Breakfast Casserole

It sounded good on paper.

Needing to bring something extra to the monthly United Methodist Men’s Breakfast, I opted to supplement my usual 4 pounds of baked and pan fried potatoes with a casserole of some sort. Realize, of course, that the good casserole ideas were already taken, i.e. the French toast strata that the same guy has been bringing for decades. Caveat: his wife actually cooks it; he just brings it. But he gets credit. Oh well; what can you do?

I had to think of something else.

In the course of writing my culinary-themed cozy mystery (currently in second edits,) I found I could save time by using a little known research tool called…the Internet. Maybe you have heard of it. After a few minutes of searching, I discovered a very tasty sounding breakfast casserole that included sausage and cinnamon-apples. Note to self: use this one next time.  Anyway, I took the idea and changed it up. Instead of wheat bread, I would use frozen hash browns. Instead of cinnamon-apples, I would use…well, just the sausage by itself. It was a simple recipe, really. Just put the hash browns straight from the bag into the casserole dish, then stir in cooked sausage, top with an egg / milk mixture and finally some shredded cheese.

It sounded so good in my mind.

Flash forward three hours. The breakfast is over, leftovers have been sent out to those who were home-bound due to illness or the bad weather (one man met the food delivery with a knife and fork, plus a five dollar bill for the kitty.) What was the fate of my breakfast casserole?

Most of it had been devoured. However, with this bunch that is not surprising.

The hash brown casserole was okay. Not great, not worthy of a repeat performance. Just okay. The 2 main issues I had with it were the potatoes lacked seasoning and even though they baked in the oven for an hour, the little strips of potato just were not done. At least not done enough. This meant I needed to do something different.  A “Plan B” as it were.

For your culinary pleasure: D.J.’s Plan B Hash Brown Breakfast Casserole:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Ingredients

1 bag of frozen hash brown potatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

2 pounds of sausage (I used Jimmy Dean brand – maple infused sausage)

6 eggs

2 cups of milk

4 cups shredded Colby Jack cheese (or Cheddar, if you like)

Prep Directions

- Bake the hash brown potatoes according to the directions on the package. There are a few ways to cook them; choose whatever works for you. Bottom line – cook/bake them before you start to assemble the casserole.  Don’t forget to add salt and cracked black pepper, stirring in. How much? I would use what you think is right, then add some more.

- While the hash browns are in the oven, get out a large skillet and fully cook the sausage. As it cooks, you want to shred the sausage into little nugget sized hunks. Think browning meat for a spaghetti sauce. This isn’t scientific, just make sure you do not have sausage chunks too big for a normal bite.

- As the hash browns are finishing their time in the oven, and the sausage is now resting, take out a medium sized bowl and mix together the eggs and the milk.

Putting it all together

- Take the baked hash browns and put them in a standard, 9 inch by 13 inch casserole dish.

- Fold in the cooked sausage.

- Pour the milk / egg mixture evenly over the casserole.

- Sprinkle the shredded cheese on top.

- Bake in the preheated oven for one hour. At the 30 minute point, you may want to check and see if the top is starting to brown. If it looks like your casserole is progressing from “brown” to “burned’” cover with some foil and bake for the remaining half hour.

Once the hour is up, let rest for a few minutes then dig in and eat!

Sounds good, yes?

But wait – there’s more.

What to do with leftovers – for the person cooking for one or two.

You can always refrigerate any leftovers. Then, when the urge strikes – put a few scoops of the hash brown casserole into a hot frying pan of butter. Now the hash browns will have been baked, baked again, and now fried with butter. Paula Deen would be so proud. Not sure about my doctor, though.

Sure, this is Plan B recipe is a variation on a common breakfast casserole theme, but hey – it works. Next time, it’s the French Toast Strata expedition. Maybe I should talk to my wife about that…

 

 

 

Tex-Mex Quinoa with Cheese Nip Chicken

photo (5)Not enough time to cook up a decent sauerbraten? No hot dogs sitting in the back of the fridge? Are there two people in the room looking at you, the food writer, expecting a culinary miracle – in under an hour? What? They’re vegetarians? And,,,when does Duck Dynasty start tonight?

Yep. I was suddenly in my own version of Food Network’s Chopped.

Let’s see. What do I have?

Chicken breasts, quinoa, half a bag of frozen corn, Cheese Nips, leftover black beans, and fresh broccoli.

Oh, this will be easy. Do you see it yet?

First off – preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Now, let’s deal with the chicken. Take the Cheese Nips and put a few handfuls in a zip lock bag. Close the bag, seal it up (trying to keep as much air out as possible) and pulverize the Nips using a heavy rolling pin.

Take your chicken and soak the breasts in a little milk, then put them in the zip lock bag and shake. You now have Cheese Nip coated chicken! Put the chicken breasts on a baking sheet and put in the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes then check the temperature with a thermometer. You want at least 165 degrees in the thickest part. No thermometer? Stick the thickest part with a knife and see if the juices running out are clear. If not, put everything back in the oven until they do.

The quinoa – this has many options. I chose to go Tex-Mex. In a medium stock pot, put in 1 cup of quinoa, 2 cups of vegetable broth, 1 clove of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and a little salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until the broth is absorbed. When done, fluff a little with a fork and then add the frozen corn and leftover black beans. Cover and let sit for about ten minutes. Stir once more, just before you serve.

What can be better than plain old, unadulterated broccoli?  Stir fry the florets in a little olive oil. That’s all you have to do.

Put it all together and you have a great meal. My two vegetarians loved it (sans the chicken, of course) and I loved everything plus the Cheese Nip-flavored baked chicken.

No, it is not a hors d’ oeuvres of smoked salmon on crustini, garnished with basil cream cheese and capers.

But it was easy to make, didn’t take too long, and it tasted great.

Now, back to the mystery novel. I still have about six more recipes to write before Duck Dynasty starts.

Anyone want to be a taste tester?

 

Cranberry Orange Bread

Cranberry Orange Bread slathered with butter

Cranberry Orange Bread slathered with butter

Have a bag of fresh cranberries still hiding in that freezer? Don’t feel like waiting 11 more months until Christmas comes around again to use them? Then try this recipe for Cranberry Orange Bread.

It’s a long story, but suffice to say we needed to bring a bag of chips something homemade and tasty to our church pot luck. The timing of everyone’s schedule was terribly off so I could not cook or bake anything prior to the event, unless I wanted to start on the Thursday beforehand. Stale food for a pot luck? Not on my watch. Fortunately, number one daughter is home from college and she loves to work in the kitchen. So giving credit where credit is due – this is her version of Cranberry Orange Bread.

It has just a bit more density than a typical banana bread, but is packed with tangy flavor from the berries and the orange zest. Once it has cooled down, remove it from the pan – slice a piece – then slather a tablespoon or two of butter on top,

It’s almost heaven by the slice, I tell you!

Ingredients

2 cups  flour

3/4 cup  sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon  baking powder

3/4 teaspoon  salt

1/2 teaspoon  baking soda

1/4 cup  butter

2 tablespoons  orange zest

3/4 cup  orange juice

1  egg, lightly beaten

1 cup  fresh cranberries, chopped (a few spins in a food processor will do it)

Mixing

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients.

Blend in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. (I use a fork for this. I get a better feel for the texture as opposed to using a counter top mixer.)

Stir in the zest, orange juice and egg until just mixed somewhat evenly.

Using a spatula, fold in the chopped cranberries.

Baking

Grease the bottom (only) of a loaf pan.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour. Hint: start checking the bread visually, through the oven window, at about the 45 minute mark. Try to avoid opening the oven door for at least an hour.

HOWEVER – if the top of the bread is looking brown and the edges look like they may be starting to burn crust up, open the door and stick a toothpick in the center. Pull the pick out and see if it is clean. A clean pick means the center is done. If there is batter on the toothpick, and the top is starting to brown, cover the loaf pan with some foil.

And then continue baking. Just make sure to check the bread every ten minutes. It shouldn’t take much longer.

Once the cranberry orange bread is finished baking, let it cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes. Then, take a butter knife (plastic knife would be even better) and carefully run it around the inside edge of the pan, to separate the bread from the pan wall.

Now, invert the pan over a cutting board. if everything goes in your favor – the bread should just fall right onto the board. Flip the bread back right-side up and let cool another 5 minutes before slicing.

For best results: let the bread cool completely before slicing. Good luck trying to wait that long.

Have the butter on standby. It’s time to eat!

Azar’s Big Fat Greek Burger

Azar's Big Fat Greek Burger

Azar’s Big Fat Greek Burger

Even writers like to eat. And normally this post would be on my food blog, but I am trying to consolidate readers, introducing one group to the other. Food seemed like the best way to do this, so here we are, Exploding Potatoes readers – welcome to my writing blog!

For some reason I seem to be on a quest for hamburgers lately, good ones at least, so imagine my dismay when the family decided to dine out at our local Mediterranean cafe, Azar’s Market & Cafe located in the historic Ghent area of Norfolk. (For my international readers, this Norfolk is the Virginia version, not the UK city from which ours received its name. Sorry to disappoint.)

But Azar’s did not disappoint. Far from it.

Granted, they serve an excellent hummus, and even better falafel – great news for the two vegetarians in my family. But for the three of us who love meat, the burger night was on!

My Big Fat Greek Burger was the choice tonight. At first I wondered if there should have been more meat, because, well, more meat is always better in my book. But as you can tell from the photo below, there weren’t any complaints in the end.

The beef is seasoned, although I was hard pressed to identify the exact formula of spices. This was probably due to the feta and mozzarella cheese on top, accompanied by their friends kalamata olive, lettuce, tomato, tzatziki sauce (a Lebanese yogurt cucumber sauce,) and the clincher for some zip – banana peppers. Cram all of this in between two slices of light and fluffy ciabatta and you have yourself a winner.

So no, the beef did not predominate. But in this case – it was just fine.

The bottom line: if you want a huge pile of beef, go find a drive-through somewhere and order a double something with cheese. BUT, if you want a nice plate full of flavor, try Azar’s Big Fat Greek Burger. As you can see here, there were no survivors.

Just crumbs remain, and not many of those...

Just crumbs remain, and not many of those…

Azar’s also offers lamb burgers, excellent tofu burgers (with a vegan option, too!) as well as a regular, American style cheeseburger for those less adventurous.

For details on the restaurant, check out their website. Your taste buds will thank you later!

Now, back to the novel…