Things That Were Cooked Memorial Day 2012

Outside of writing, cooking is probably my favorite creative outlet. Annoyingly I only get to do it rarely because cooking for one is utterly joyless for me. If I can’t share what I’m making, I don’t see much point in it. This has more to do with my personality than my menu. It’s like how I don’t consider a story done until I get a solid bit of feedback from a handful of my fans.

Anyway, a few times a year I do get the chance to cook for a crowd and I always post my trials and errors here, usually along with pictures of the food…or at least of the weekend. I took zero pictures last weekend so this will be an even more absurd exercise than normal as I’ll just throw stock photos into the mix.

1. Pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe

This is quickly becoming a go-to dish for me. It’s easy as hell but it uses enough weirdo ingredients that people go “Oooh” and “Ahhh” and if you play it right you come across as a genius.

Basically if you can taste food for texture than you can make this. Get four hot italian sausages, split open the casing, brown and mash up the meat in a pan.

Brocolli RabeGet a bunch of broccoli rabe. This is “Oooh” ingredient number one. I bought it at the A&P, but it’s good to lie and say you went to some farmer’s market thing. You steam this. If you don’t know how to steam something, well, you put it in a pot with enough water to make steam but not so much that the broccoli is drowning in it. Ideally you have a steamer insert to go into the pot to make an inch of room between the water at the bottom and the broccoli.

Now this is important. As it’s steaming, TASTE THE BROCCOLI RABE. You should have prepped it by snipping it into little bits and discarding the stems when they get too thick. So pop a bit into your mouth now and then until it has the right texture. The flavor will be bitter, that’s what broccoli rabe tastes like, but the texture should be pleasing.

Crunchy? You’re not there yet. Mushy? You went too far. Throw it out and pretend like you planned on a meat sauce instead.

It should be about ten minutes total.

Pasta is the same way. Salt your water and bring it to a boil. Throw two boxes of shells or orecchiette  (you can gain fancy points for using this) into the water once it’s boiling. Stir. Cover. When it comes back to a boil take the cover off or you’ll have a boil over. Then taste after seven minutes or so. Mushy? You’re fucked. Crunchy? Start tasting a shell every minute or so. Get it the hell out of the water sooner rather than later because there’s a lot of carry over heat so a little under will turn out to be nicely done while a little over will turn into mush in the strainer.

Dump the cooked sausage into a big bowl, dump the broccoli rabe in, dump the pasta in, stir. After that’s mixed start crumbling your blue or Gorgonzola cheese in. You want some of it to melt in the heat of the pasta but some bits should stay whole so you get contrast.

Again, this dish involves cooking three ingredients and then stirring them together but when you present it as “Orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe and a hint of blue cheese to bring it all together” people will think you’re a wizard.

2. Beet salad

BeetsI love beets. My friend thinks they taste dirty. I think he’s never washed his beets. Beets are also easy. You give them a rinse, cut the ends off, drizzle them in oil, then wrap them in foil and put them in a 350 oven for about an hour. Let them cool and then peel the skin off. You will get red dye all over the god-damned place and your hands will look like you’ve been butchering sheep. It’s fun. Once the skin is off cube your beets and TASTE THEM. If they’re too crunchy, back in the oven they go. When they have a nice plump, juiciness, they’re done. Mine had to go back in the oven. Didn’t hurt ’em none.

Now here was my big breakthrough this year, I decided to add mango to the cubed beets. I took a mango, cut the flesh from that giant annoying seed in the middle, peeled away the flesh from the skin, cubed it, and threw it in the bowl with the beets.

Complicated, I know.

I also added a splash of Balsamic Vinegar. Then I crushed some walnuts over the top. With my fist. Because I’m all man. I mean the walnuts were out of their shells, I didn’t crush walnut shells with my fist. But shelled walnuts from a bag were crushed over the top.

This was a big winner.

3. Pulled Pork

I’ve been doing things to pork shoulders for six or seven years now and the fussier I get with things the less happy I am with the results. This year…oh by the way you should be drinking at every stage of the entire cooking process for all of these recipes. Anyway, this year there was a drunken debate about brining with a friend of mine. He said that too long can make the pork taste “wormy” and I said that I agreed but that some brining was needed and then I think we quoted Always Sunny for awhile.

But we did, indeed, brine the pork shoulder. We had a picnic shoulder cut…thing of pork. To make a brine you heat some water in a pot and add a ton of salt. How do you know how much salt? TASTE THE WATER. It should be ocean salty or saltier. Then you need to cool it down because you can’t put pork into hot water to brine because that’s disgusting.

Honey glazed pork shoulder rawSo why heat the water in the first place? Because cold water won’t let as much salt dissolve in it as hot water does. So you up the heat, dissolve a lot of salt in it, then cool your brine down. If you’re adding ice to cool it keep in mind that the ingredients of ice are: water. So you’re adding water to your brine. So your salt level will decrease as the ice melts. It can be easier just to shove the pot in the freezer for awhile so you don’t have to think as much. Remember, you should be drinking so thinking should be an anathema to you at this point.

Then the pork goes into the brine and the whole thing goes somewhere at a temperature safe to store meat overnight.

Now here’s where I switched things up this year. Normally I take a big pan and put quartered onions and garlic along the bottom, and add some liquid (water, apple juice, bourbon, a mixture of some sort, whatever) then put the pork in and tent it with foil and let it sit in a 250 oven for most of the day. I’ve never been crazy happy with the results.

This year I opted not to tent it.

I do need to stress the quartered onions in the pan. You don’t want the pork just sitting on the bottom of the pan cause it’ll overcook there and get stuck and blech.

Anyway, no tenting, 250 for most of the day, and then I cranked it up to 450 for an hour. This did…something. I don’t know, I think the tenting in past years has ended up steaming the pork more than slow cooking it. The object is to make the fat at the top of the pork (oh put your pork in fat side up) render down through the meat, self basting the whole sucker.

No tenting seemed to help that process more. Again, I think it was steaming too much before, and then the blast of high heat at the end really let her get some color and run through the last bit of fat.

By the way, cracklin’s, i.e. the pieces of fat that have rendered entirely into browned chips, are fucking delicious.

Then you pull the pork and serve it up with things and stuff.

4. Pesto Pasta

Here’s another “recipe” that’s me-proof but makes people “Oooh” and “Ahhh.” You don’t even cook anything here except the pasta. You make the whole thing in a Cuisinart. First garlic, that can be mildly tricky because garlic cloves in a Cuisinart like to bounce around like lunatics and not chop but on pulse you can get the suckers to pulverize. Then you add basil. Not dried, herby, basil, but fresh basil still on the stem.

Pesto

Again, bought it at the A&P. Wash it, cut off the thicker parts of the stem, then into the Cuisinart. You’ll get a weird half result here with leaves smooshing against the side but that’s okay because ingredient three is olive oil. Drizzle it in until you get a nice smooth paste consistency. Then maybe some shredded parmigiana. Some people add cream here too. Most of this is optional. Again, you should be drinking, so have fun with it. I actually don’t remember what I added. Except salt. How much salt? Well first you TASTE YOUR PESTO. Then add some salt. Then TASTE AGAIN. When you like the taste you’re there.

At the end of all of this I throw in some pistachios. I don’t turn them to mush, just pulse until they break down. This is another “Ooooh” thing that makes you seem like a wizard. They add a nice crunch, distinguish your pesto from other pestos, and they’re green and salty so it’s a nice match.

Then cook some pasta and mix.

5. Wings

Just go to the Alton Brown recipe. It looks like a pain but good lord it makes fantastic wings.

6. Cheese plate? Salad? Grilled things?

I don’t know. I cook a lot when I get the chance and was constantly throwing things together.

Just keep in mind that people love eating, it brings them together, and if you have a lot of heavy dishes you should make something lighter to balance it out. Too much light stuff and you should anchor it with something heavy. Too much tangy? Add some sweet. Too much starch? Make more meat.

Oh and always drink while you cook. Always. That’s the most important part.

Unless you don’t drink.

In which case bring whatever you love into the kitchen with you, because if you aren’t having fun doing it then the food gods will be angry and your food will pay and then really what’s the point?

My Contract With My Book

signatureDear Book,

I love you, I truly do even though I, as of yet, do not know you fully. I love your curves as you move through time, I love your heart as you show me the humanity of the most despicable characters, I love your brain as you teach me about Ancient Rome and the origins of wool.

But we need to talk.

I’ve been through this with some of your siblings before, five of them to be exact, and each of the books that came before you broke my fucking head apart once the honeymoon part of the relationship had ended.

I know you want this to be the whirlwind romance that is needed to write those giddy, mind-blowing scenes that we both sense are coming…but I’m sorry. As an older, wiser, author, I have to insist on some things up front.

1. When I am not working on you, as in not sitting directly at my desk with your Word document open, you are not allowed to gnaw at my brain. When not at my desk I will happily push ideas back and forth with you, or take in landscapes that I drive past and dialogue that I overhear and file them away for you to feast on later. But you do not get to drive my brain while I am off-duty. That is my time. If I want to play video games and drink beer, I will do that and not feel bad about it. You will always be with me, but that does not mean that you get to always haunt me.

Calibration weights

2. You do not get to sit on my shoulders, compressing them with stress, yelling at me that you’re not finished yet and why aren’t you finished yet and you should be finished by now!!!! I have started five books in my life. Do you know how many I have finished? Five.

You will get done. I promise you that. I will work on you until you are done. But you are not allowed to put arbitrary time-frames into my head as to when “done” will be. That’s like trying to predict who will be standing next to me a year from now on the bus. It’s just impossible. You have my vow, though: you are officially a Joseph Devon product. You will get finished. But get off of my fucking shoulders.

3. You will be a good book. I’m not even going to acknowledge your sinkhole of doubt regarding whether people will like you or not. You will be good. You will have the fullest devotion of my talent and head and heart while I am at work on you. Your knots will be unravelled. Your mysteries will be revealed. Your problems will be solved.

And, you know what? I have a new tool that I am ready to acknowledge as a major part of the process now: rewriting. You will remember that I am a rewriting machine. You will not freak out because your first draft is a mess.

Don’t believe me? Here. I can show you the first printed version of Persistent Illusions. I had actually ordered a proof copy already because the process was so close to being finished. See the ending? See there? See how it’s still a clusterfuck of a mess even at that late date? But guess what? I rewrote it. And I rewrote it well. And it is now one of my proudest acheivements and one loved by my readers.

I will not quit on you. I will not let you be second-rate. What I mess up the first time through I will work out with sweat and toil during my rewrites. You will be good.

Those are the rules. That is the deal. You have my all, but you do not get to own me.

Agreed?

Shake on it?

Okay.

Good.

Now let’s get to work…

Flash Fiction Contest: Sewing Climax

Spools at Sunset by jypsygen from FlickrShort Version: Write a short story in 750 words or less in which the final climactic scene involves…SEWING!!!! Mail it to thiswhiterabbit@gmail.com. Next Friday-ish a winner will be announced and they will win signed copies of Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions. And if you have a blog or site where you want to post your story, feel free to link to it in the comments.

Longer Version: After discussing my research on Wednesday a conversation started on Twitter with @xperegrine about how, since I had this weird information about threads drying near a fire, I should use that. Actually, not only should I use it, but I should introduce it early, Chekhov’s gun style, and then in Act Three, BAMN!! Sewing climax!!!

I immediately said that was insane. Then it evolved into throwing the idea to you, the reader, and seeing what you could do with it.

So go! Sew! Sew like the wind!!

I Think It’s Time to Start Book Three

Oh god I can’t believe I just wrote that blog title. I have so much more research I need to do. Currently I’m halfway through a book on the history of textiles and sewing methods. I have no idea when the book was published, I grabbed it for my Kindle without checking, but it discusses at length how you shouldn’t store your thread next to a fire or heating stove because that can make your thread brittle. So I don’t think it’s the most modern book ever. Nor is it the most exciting. But it’s helped a lot and given me some sense of clothing and its creation that I didn’t have before.

Before that I read a few books about Roman history.

And after I’m done with clothes I want to read about Australian history.

And then something about Romania.

And…on and on and on.

It’d be great if I could read everything about everything before I started writing but, for obvious reasons, I can’t.

And to be honest that really doesn’t matter. Truth is I don’t need to be an expert in a subject in order to write fiction incorporating said subject. I just need to know enough to fake it.

Plus there’s the fact that writing a book isn’t like telling a story.

Telling a story implies that the story is already written. You just have to add your tone, your angles, maybe give the evil witch a spooky voice so that your audience shrieks with delight, but with storytelling you know where you’re going and how you’re getting there.

Writing a book is more like excavating an ancient ruin. You have no idea what you’re going to find. You start digging and when you hit something interesting you slow down and treat it delicately and try to let it lead you to the larger picture that’s still buried.

David (Michelangelo) by Andrea Scollo from FlickrOr sculpting. I imagine sculpting is pretty similar, too. Every sculptor I’ve read about has mentioned that they don’t turn a piece of stone into a statue, they expose the statue that already existed inside the stone.

Anyway, all the research in the world can’t prepare me for the first, “Woah, where did THAT come from,” moment that I’ll hit in book three. And after that first moment hits, all my best laid plans get tossed and it’s hard to say who is in charge anymore, me or the story.

A lot of writers express joy when they get an idea for a new work. But this is my fifth or so book and I know that this isn’t a relationship which will remain in its halcyon honeymoon stage forever.

No. Writing a book is more like shackling myself to a madman for a year in an agreement to follow wherever he goes. Except my agreement doesn’t mean anything because, you know, the shackles are in place regardless.

I am worried about the amount of story that I want to get into this book. It hit me in the shower the other morning how much I’m going to try and tell and I grew afraid.

We won’t be staying in the present, not for the whole thing, that’s for sure. I didn’t read up on Roman history to add background flavor.

And we’ll be revisiting some of the more brushed over bits of tester history. Gregor, for instance, will have his story told in more detail.

And then I have to, you know, close out the entire trilogy in a suitable fashion all the while continuing with my marketing work in a field where there’s no prior models which don’t resemble roulette wheels to me.

Sooooo…yeah.

I’m utterly terrified.

How’s your Wednesday going?

Prague Film School and My Creative Commons License

Legal gavel and leather binder on a deskEarlier this week I received an email from my new friend in Prague, Roma Raju. I mentioned her a few months ago. She attends a film school in Prague and wanted to know if she could adapt my short story, Private Showing, into a film for her final project.

My response was something along the lines of, “F*&! YES YOU CAN THAT’S SO F&*&#$G COOL OHMYGOD!”

She wrote me to let me know that progress was being made, she was looking into casting and that, “There is a whole lotta talk going on in school about a certain american writer who wrote a short story called ‘Private Showing.’ This year, the students from our school are making films based on short stories by Franz Kafka,George Orwell, Karel Capek and Joseph Devon.”

I’ll just die of happiness while you reread that.

Anyway, she also said she was writing because her school required express written permission from me to allow her to base her film on my work. Which…I’m not sure is right.

See, all my short stories are licensed under a Creative Commons license. Some of my books used to be under CC licenses too but I’ve since backed off of those. Though I don’t entirely know why. They get tricky.

Praga by Dorli Photography from FlickrNot because Creative Commons is tricky. They are a straightforward, non-profit organization with pretty interesting goals. Essentially they’re trying to make copyright law take a few steps forward so it catches up with the internet. They are not insistent that everything be free and nobody owns anything or other various extreme notions I’ve heard attributed to them.

The simplest example is an educator who uploads something to the internet with the desire of allowing anyone to use it, be it a list of math questions or a video about frogs mating. Whatever. The thing is, under traditional copyright law, in order for anyone to actually take that video and replay it, they need express written permission from the creator. That feels a bit old-fashioned when sharing at the speed of light is involved.

So Creative Commons set out to build a new set of licences, well within current copyright standards, that the previously mentioned educator could apply to their work so that others could quickly and easily disseminate it and show eighth-graders how frogs mate.

Creative Commons has a number of different licenses available. The most common allow one’s work to be shared based on three decisions:

1. Whether the sharing party must credit the original source

2. Whether the sharing party may profit from their sharing

3. Whether adaptations can be made, like turning a short story into a film.

And then you can mix and match among these things. Some people just share entirely and enter work directly into the public domain, some share but don’t want adaptations, etc. And of course you are free to contact the original creator directly and work out a whole new deal. You aren’t locked into the CC licence exclusively.

For me it gets tricky. My books, as I said, were open for sharing provided no profit was made and I was sourced. I get a lot of referrals from Free Online Novels where some of my books are available, which is nice. The overall concept in this day and age is that more dissemination means more readers means more fans means more people coming back here and spreading the word.

Except, Free Online Novels also sells ad space on their site. So…are they making a profit by sharing my work? They’re not selling it directly for profit, but my content is driving clicks to their ads which they’re profiting from.

Confusing.

Old Books by michaelatacker from FlickrSo I’ve backed off of CC licences for my larger works.

For my short stories, though? Well those are always kind of loss leaders in my mind. I love short stories and I love writing them but there’s like, two, authors in the world who can actually turn a profit off of a short story. For me they’re more valuable as tools to give new readers a taste of my voice and draw them in to reading my larger works. I’m happy to have short stories out there under the CC licence. And if someone does want to publish one for profit, well, again, I hold those rights still and they can contact me.

Which brings me back to Roma in Prague.

The story she wants to use is licensed under a Creative Commons license. Or it was…to be honest this might all be my fault because the CC badges get lost sometimes during the many shufflings I’ve done to my site’s organization.

Not that anyone is at fault, it’s just strange that despite my giving permission to use my work under a CC licence and giving permission to Roma in an email to use my work, her school is still requiring her to get express written permission from me. Like I’m going to be mailing a sheet of paper in an envelope to Prague.

Laws are funny things.

Some people think they get written down and then they are iron-clad, as if the ink that is pressed onto the paper during their writing is imbued with magic, and once set down everything falls under its sway.

But that’s not how it works. Once written down, they’re just written down, that’s all. They’re malleable, open to interpretation, arguable, up to the whim of whoever is chosen to judge the words if they are actually dragged into a courtroom for clarification. And they’re fallible, which is why I think maybe Roma’s school wants a firmer agreement from me.

I have no idea how well known Creative Commons is in Prague, but my hunch tells me that they’re not very. And if they seem like just some nobodies without much knowledge of the law, then Roma’s school is probably not going to pay them, or their licences, much mind and prefer to outline things their own way.

What does all this mean?

I have no idea. CC licences, as I said, are non-exclusive, so anyone else is free to approach me, the copyright holder, to work out another, seperate, non-exclusive deal. Which is what Roma’s school is doing.

Salt by Judy ** from Flickr

It’s just interesting to me that openly sharing my work can prove so difficult and that laws are only strong if they are generally understood and accepted.

At some point in French history, so it goes, the current king decided to fill his coffers by imposing an absurd tax on salt. This king is widely credited with, overnight, creating the largest black market in history and turning his entire population into salt smugglers.

The people simply didn’t go along with it.

What’s more powerful, the will of the people or court of law?

Don’t answer that.

Just stay tuned…MY STORY IS GOING TO BE MADE INTO A FREAKING MOVE!!!!

The Pins are Out of the Grenades: More Thoughts on Self-Publishing

Burning bombI haven’t been sleeping real well lately and my eyes are all kinds of blurry this morning. That’s partly because of allergies and partly because I’ve been pretty stressed out this past week.

As I mentioned last Wednesday, I’ve started seeing signs of my self-promotion paying off. It’s clumsy but, for the first time ever, I have a marketing machine that makes some sort of sense to me.

Everything I’ve tried over the past few years, outside of releasing a new book, has had a murky effect on my sales. My readership has been growing, there’s no doubt there, and I continue to get new fans, but it’s been…well to call it confusing doesn’t quite fit because that implies that I at least understood some of what’s been going on.

I haven’t. Good reviews on well-read blogs have done nothing, bad reviews on blogs with three readers have boosted sales. Giveaways have done nothing, Tweeting “1…2…3…READ MY BOOK!” got me introduced to the publishing house that brought The Hunger Games to Latin America and Spain.

It hasn’t been merely confusing, it’s been like a Dali painting on acid. I might as well have woken up every morning, drank a bottle of NyQuil, and sat down for my marketing time for all the logic that has been involved.

Now though? Now there’s actual sense here. I apply force X to lever Y and Z goes up. I adjust my marketing budget (X) in the two ad campaigns I’m running right now on Facebook and Goodreads (Y) and sales (Z) rise.

LeverIt’s clumsy and I have to believe that I can get a larger rise in sales per dollar put in by tweaking ads, page layout, which quotes from reviewers I lead with, etc. Currently the cost in advertising per sale is a dismal number, and when I talk about sales I’m talking low double-digits for April.

But it’s a functional machine. And it’s real. And that’s why I haven’t been sleeping.

Money goes in, sales go up…but that’s not the end goal.

That’s a means to an end.

The end goal is to have Amazon eventually say, “Why hello there, Probability Angels, you’ve been selling well recently. How about I introduce you to more of my customers?”

That’s been my goal since day one, though I’ve lost track of it plenty of times. That’s been my bedrock concept. And now here I am, putting real money in and creating real sales on Amazon and having hourly panic attacks that my core goal, the attention of the Amazon algorithm, is a myth. Or that the money I’d have to spend to garner that attention is so high that all I’m doing is throwing my money away to see a brief rise in sales and then, once the money, Force X, is gone, things will slow back down to a crawl and Amazon will not have taken notice. It’s stressful.

I do have two concrete facts that I’ve come away with this week, though.

One is that, with the rise in sales of Probability Angels there has been a rise in sales of the sequel, Persistent Illusions. And I’m not advertising Persistent Illusions. At all. There’s mention of it at the end of the current edition of Probability Angels and it is the first book that Amazon recommends if you liked Probability Angels, but no direct marketing by me. So to see the numbers of the sequel also go up is comforting. I’m buying fans not sales.

The second concrete fact is minor and specific entirely to the Goodreads ad campaign, but I found it fascinating.

Goodreads recommends that you create two ads for every ad you make. One to target a set of authors, and one to target a set of genres.

Here are my two ads based on a quote from Nyx. Note the difference in click-through rate:

PA Goodreads Ad with Reviews

Probability Angels Ad No Reviews

For those of you not familiar with CTR, that’s your click-through rate, the percentage of times the ad has been clicked out of the total number of times it has been displayed. CTR’s generally range from 0.05% to 0.50%, so o.11% is a big number in this world, the highest in my ad campaign, in fact.

And yet, the second ad, the one targeting specific authors, has a 0.0% click-through rate. I could see some discrepancy between the two because one targets genres and the other authors, but for an ad worded exactly the same to range from the highest CTR in my campaign to the lowest? No. That was a red flag.

And yet I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on…until today. Can you see it? You probably caught it already.

When I created the author ad, the one with no clicks, I forgot to toggle the box on the ad creation form that puts a link to your reviews at the bottom of the ad.

Three words: “View 85 reviews.” A change from 0.0% to 0.11%.

No wonder I haven’t been sleeping well. I forgot to check off one box and a swing in numbers that large occurred.

Yoga meditation on the beach

I miss the days of pure theory. Those were comforting. It’s so nice to say, “Well this happens because of that and I know it’s true because in my head it sounds right.”

I still do plenty of that and, granted, that mindset came about because nothing I did seemed to matter anyway. But now there’s this jarring sense of cause and effect. And, along with that, a very real sense that I’ve moved out of dress rehearsal, that I’m no longer practicing, that I’ve switched from learning to juggle with duds to juggling with live grenades…and all the pins are out.

Theory no longer; sleep is scarce.

More next week.