Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fire up the Grill!

"The most tangible of all visible mysteries--fire." Leigh Hunt

There's nothing like meat cooked over that tangible mystery! Summer is prime grilling season, but real men grill all year long--at least my husband does! And I love that because grilling certainly saves me time. It takes only minutes to prepare a tasty marinade, and a few hours up to overnight to let the meat sit in the fridge.

Then I just yell, "Honey, time to grill!" While he's grilling, I fix rice, salad and a vegetable, and voila! Dinner's done, and clean up is fast!

Try this easy and delicious marinade the next time you have pork chops!

Ginger Honey Pork Chops

3 lbs. pork chops
3 t garlic powder
1 2 inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped (food processor works well for this)
1 T packed brown sugar
1 t salt
2 t pepper
2 T honey
2 T soy sauce

Place chops in a non-reactive dish; set aside. Combine remaining ingredients; spread over chops. Cover and marinate 1-24 hours in refrigerator. Grill as desired.

What's your favorite grilled meat? Vegetarian? What's your favorite grilled veggie?

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Monday, June 28, 2010

How do You Handle Rejection?

"Into every writer's life, some rain must fall--though sometimes it may feel more like a deluge." Robert Masello from Robert's Rules of Writing, Rule 55: Get Rejected

As writers, we must accept rejection. If we're not prepared for it, we don't need to be writing. As Robert Masello says, "You will send your work out--to agents, editors, publishers--and it will come back to you like a boomerang. Turned down, passed on, rejected. It's a rite of passage, and the sooner you make your peace with it, the better off you'll be."

It's important not to take rejection personally. It's your work that's being rejected, not you as a person. Agents, editors and publishers are concerned about the bottom line. They want to make money, and they want you to make money, too. If you're not a right fit for them, it's a lose lose situation. Author turned agent Jennifer Lawler says, "My problem isn't how much bad writing crosses my desk. The problem is how much good writing I see. I have to figure out which of these good projects is most likely to sell."

Recently, I asked writers from a couple of online writing groups how they handle rejection and I received a variety of responses. I'm happy to report that no sociopaths replied, so no mention of dart boards, voodoo dolls or stalking appeared--PHEW!

But before I detail those comments, I'd like to mention a gentle reminder. Respect is the most important element of any business transaction. Respect equals the Golden Rule: treat others as you would have them treat you.

Sending a nasty email in response to a rejection letter won't do anything to endear you to that agent/editor/publisher or their agent/editor/publisher friends. And detailed blogging about your rejections and expletive filled opinions about those who rejected you won't get you far. You'll establish a reputation, but not exactly the one you want.

Here are a few other points to keep in mind. Regardless of how many rejections you get, keep persevering! Bestselling author Bob Mayer says he got published because he submitted to everybody! But do your homework. Make sure that whoever you're submitting to takes the type of project you're offering.

There's someone out there who will love your story just as much as you do. You wouldn't want someone representing you who's only lukewarm about your work. Just like you wouldn't want to marry someone who only felt lukewarm about you.

Sometimes, as author Holly Jacobs says about one of her books rejected more than once, " was a matter of finding the right desk on the right day for the right line." This particular book, Everything But a Groom, became one of Booklist's Top 10 Romances in 2008.

If someone is kind enough to offer constructive criticism in a rejection letter, by all means heed the advice! The most crushing rejection letter I ever received offered some excellent instruction and made me a better writer. Of course, if the correspondence hadn't ended with "your story just isn't worth taking the time to edit," it really wouldn't have been crushing at all!

Suggested changes usually apply to mechanics, rather than story elements. Agents are hesitant to explain why they reject something regarding your story. Jennifer Lawler explains, "This business is subjective; what I think is wrong with your novel may be what the next agent thinks is right with it."

When I receive a rejection letter, I file it away and decide who I should query next. Here's some encouraging insight from other writers on rejection. I promised anonymity to all respondents so I took the liberty of creating new identities for them:

"I run to my writer friends for comfort, advice and 'been-there-toos.'" The Seeker

"I framed my first non-form rejection letter. Now I just file the others away." The Sentimentalist

"My best idea is to avoid rejection and take control of my own destiny." The Optimist

"I get to work on rewrites. Nothing lights a fire under my behind more than someone telling me I'm not good enough!" The Fire Marshal

"I used to get really depressed when I got rejected. Now I just shrug and look for someplace else to send the story." The Realist

"I've worked in competitive environments all my life: air personality/operations manager/account manager/radio talk show host, TV sports anchor, etc. Slumps are part of those businesses, and so too are rejections from agents and publishers. You can't dwell on them, you have to learn from them. 'No' is just a word, losing is not a lifestyle." The Coach

"Just got one yesterday that put me in the pits. My guy took me out to dinner and stopped by the candy shop to buy me fudge." The Foodie

"In the spreadsheet I maintain to keep track of which book went where and to whom, there are two three column entries I fill: result, date returned, and comment. I make entries as appropriate, put the correspondence in the trash and go on. Emotional energy is too precious to waste on something you can't change." The Encourager/Detail Specialist

"If you are referring to that pile of paper in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet pushed into the corner of a back bedroom closet, that's my wall paper collection. I simply find the minimal use of ink on the page breathtaking. It will make perfect wall covering for the bathroom in the new house. And for the hallway, I'm going to use the ones with the nice little hand written notes at the bottom. That will make for some great conversation. And when I run out of paper from that pile, I'll pull out the big guns. These are the ones that say "I just love the piece but I'll have to pass." Those will be framed and line the kitchen backsplash." The Comedienne/Interior Decorator

"I found that in the process of becoming a serious writer, the rejections didn't mean so much after a while. It became part of the process. Now when I get a rejection, I send that piece out to the next publisher on the list." The Perseverer

"I tend to over think things. There's no way I can know the reason for the rejection. So I just ignore it and move on. Getting better at the craft is a personal experience. The process of getting published has absolutely nothing to do with the journey of becoming a better writer." The Philosopher

"The way I look at rejection is through a 'lock and key' comparison. A new rejection letter is just a key that doesn't fit my lock. The next one might be just the right fit, so I don't get discouraged, I just keep searching until I find the right fit." The Locksmith

"I just submitted my first proposal, and though I'm encouraged, I'm prepared for the infamous 'no.' If it's rejected, I'll tweak if/where necessary and send to the next agent/publisher. I'm always up for a challenge." The Fearless

To that last response, The Encourager/Detail Specialist replied, "When (think positive) your book is finally accepted by a publisher, and is finally in print, and you get a few, or many good reviews, you are going to ask why it was rejected so many times to begin with. There is no answer to that question. I know because I am going through that right now." How awesome! Let's all take that to heart!

Thanks to all the wonderful respondents! I hope they've encouraged you with all their words of wisdom, advice and humor!

How do you handle rejection?

Follow me on Twitter: @maria_mckenzie

Friday, June 25, 2010

It's All in What You Say: Writing Dialogue

"A dialogue is more than two monologues." Max Kampelman

My favorite part of fiction writing is dialogue. It serves many purposes. And so much can be revealed about a character through his thoughts, actions and especially words he says or doesn't say. Each word clues the reader in to that particular character's identity.

I love old movies and Casablanca is one of my all time favorites! William Bayer, in his book The Great Movies, classifies it as one of the 60 greatest motion pictures of all time. Bayer says it is one of the few adventure films where the adventure takes place indoors. There are no fights or outdoor adventures. "There are, instead, adventures of verbal jousting, of dialogue and innuendo, and they are dominated, in fact ruled, by a supreme adventurer, Rick."

What makes us know Rick is an adventurer is his dialogue. Bayer outlines several snatches of it that reveal glimpses into Rick's character:

His Irony
When asked to explain why he came to Casablanca, Rick says,"I came to Casablanca for the waters."
"What waters? We're in the desert."
"I was misinformed."

His Sex Life in Casablanca:
As seen with a girl in a brief exchange. She asks,"Where were you last night?"
"That's so long ago I don't remember."
"Will I see you tonight?"
"I never make plans so far in advance."

His Bitterness:
When he accuses Ingrid Bergman of having had other lovers: "Were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that kisses and tells?"

His Urbanity:
"What is your nationality?" Major Strasser asks.
"I'm a drunkard," says Rick.

His Mystique (my favorite quote):
Claude Raines explains to Ingrid Bergman: "Rick is the kind of man that if I were a woman, I would be in love with Rick."

Besides revealing insight into your characters, dialogue moves your story along by providing important information. That's why the lines are there in the first place, and that's what keeps the reader reading!

Keep your dialogue natural sounding. Reading it out loud is a good test to hear if it sounds like a real conversation. As far as dialect, a little goes a long way. It makes your reader work too hard by having to intepret what you've written. Just throw in a few words, then leave the rest to the reader's imagination. They'll get the message regarding the character's speech pattern.

Hope this insight into dialogue has been helpful! If you haven't seen Casablanca, rent it this weekend! It's worth it!

What's some of the best dialogue you've seen or read lately?

Follow me on Twitter: @maria_mckenzie.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Soups On!

I love soup! At the first sign of autumn crispness, I pull out my all my recipes. With air conditioning, hot, hearty soups are great all year long, although I'm not particularly inclined to make them in the summer.

Cold soups, however, are another story, and they're especially delicious with with a big salad or a tasty wrap. One of my favorites is Vichyssoise. It sounds difficult to prepare, just because of the name. Calling it cold potato soup seeems less intimidating. And to be honest, I've never made traditional Vichyssoise, so I can't really tell you how hard it is to make.

With me, simplicity is key! Miracle Vichyssoise is a recipe I found in the Raleigh News and Observer several years ago, when I lived in North Carolina. It's wonderful, not to mention easy and fast! But I'd suggest slimming it down by using skim milk instead of whole milk or half and half as the recipe calls for. Hope you like it!

Miracle Vichyssoise

1 T butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 (14.5 oz.) cans fat free chicken broth
2 (14.5 Oz.) cans sliced new potatoes, drained
1 cup milk or half and half (can use skim milk to cut calories)
1/2 t Worcestershire sauce
black pepper to taste
1/4 t salt (optional)

Melt buttter in a small skillet on medium heat. Add onion and raise heat to medium-high. Cook onion 4 minutes or until translucent, stirring occasionally and taking care not to brown.

Meanwhile, put drained potatoes and 1 can of broth into blender or food processor and puree until smooth. (If using a food processor, add only half can of broth to prevent overflow.)

Add onions and blend 45 seconds or so. Pour potato mixture into a large serving or storage bowl. Add remaining ingredients. Stir well. Chill before serving. Makes 8 1-cup servings.

Do you have a favorite cold soup?

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Happy Father's Day!

"To her the name of father was another name for love." Fanny Fern

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there! Father's Day began in the early 20th century to complement Mother's Day, and honor fathers in their roles as male parents. The first observance is believed to have been held on June 19, 1910 through the efforts of Sonora Smart Dodd. Dodd lost her mother as a teenager, leaving her father to raise six children. After Mother's Day was established in 1909, Dodd believed fathers' should be honored as well. For more information on Father's Day see

I'm fortunate to still have my dad, plus lots of great memories. My dad didn't cook often, but he made the best charcoal grilled ribs I've ever tasted! Memorial Day and Fourth of July, Dad would fire up the grill and cook for family gatherings in our backyard.

Grilling is considered manly, but my dad had another specialty. There were those times, perhaps once or twice a year, when he disappear downstairs while the rest of us watched TV before going to bed. Wondering where he was, my sister and I would set off to find him. There in the kitchen, we'd see him, fork in hand, mixing batter in a metal mixing bowl. Close by was a cast iron skillet, filled with melted butter.

We'd be so excited because soon, the house would smell like pineapples and brown sugar. My dad made the world's best pineapple upside down cake! And eating it warm from the oven a was a real treat.

My mom is a great cook, but the one time she made pineapple upside down cake, it wasn't nearly as good, or beautiful as my dad's. Sorry Mom! Happy Father's Day, Dad!!

What's a special memory about your dad?

I hadn't planned on sharing a recipe, but since I love food, I can't resist! I don't have my dad's pineapple upside down recipe. All I know is that it contained lots of butter! Here's an alternative that's a little healthier. Make it for your dad!

SkinnyPineapple Upside Down Cake

1 cup brown sugar
2 T Karo corn syrup
20 oz. can pineapple rings in juice (reserve juice)
3/4 cup maraschino cherries
1 1/2 cups flour
1 t baking powder
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 brown sugar
1 whole eggs, 2 egg whites
1 T oil
1/2 cup applesauce
2 t vanilla
1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9x13 inch baking dish with cooking spray.

Combine 1 cup brown sugar and corn syrup in prepared pan. Mix until it covers bottom of baking dish. Drain pineapple slices, reserving juice. Arrange pineapples and cherries on top of corn syrup mixture.

In a large bowl combine sugar, 1/4 brown sugar, eggs, applesauce, oil, vanilla and milk. Add flour and baking powder. Mix well. Stir in reserved juice. Mix well.

Pour batter over pineapple slices and bake in preheated oven 35 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool cake 10 minutes. Invert over serving platter. Serves 16.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Flaw Your Hero

"No man can climb beyond the limitations of his own character." John Morley

When developing a hero in your fiction writing, it's important to make sure he's flawed. As in real life, this character should be imperfect. If he's good looking, smart, compassionate, loves children and animals, has a high paying corporate job and volunteers all his spare time working in orphanages and soup kitchens, your hero is too perfect. In other words, too boring!

Spice up your hero by flawing him with arrogance, or a hot temper. Perhaps he's a recovering alcoholic who struggles daily with his addiction. Maybe he was an abused child, and now carries the psychological scars that prevent him from building a meaningful relationship. Could he have suffered trauma (seeing his family killed), could he have been abandoned as a child, could he have been betrayed by a friend?

The possibilities are endless! Transform your hero from plain turkey on white, to turkey on crusty bread with sharp cheddar, salty anchovies, hot peppers and black olives! (Anybody else hungry for a hero sandwich, or is it just me?)

Who's your favorite fictional hero?

Follow me on Twitter: @maria_mckenzie.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Warrior Writing: Strategic Change

"Act like a man of thought. Think like a man of action." Thomas Mann

Recently I had the awesome experience of attending New York Times bestselling author Bob Mayer's "Warrior Writing" workshop.

I learned several valuable lessons, but the most important one for me focused on change.

What holds you back? YOU! And you can change you. According to Bob, if you aren't where you want to be, you must change. We've all come to a crossroads when we realize that in order to make something happen in our careers, some type of change must occur.

We may not like the change. We'll struggle with it, and perhaps deny that we have to change at all. Then we'll experience anger as we realize that the change is for the best. We'll bargain with ourselves about the best way to change, hoping there will be an easy way, then become depressed when reality says easy isn't best. If we're wise, we'll accept the change and work hard for it.

Change isn't just thinking differently, although this is the first step. And think about this: To make is externally motivated. To become is internally motivated. The successful become.

All of us can change. But we need to show change, not just talk about it. And change requires three things to happen:

  • A Moment of Enlightenment
  • Making a Decision
  • Implementing a Sustained Action

The five stages of change include:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Moment of Enlightenment (MOE): This happens when you experience something never experienced before. Or, when you experience something you have experienced, but it affects you differently than ever before. Think light bulb going on above head.

By itself, the MOE is not change, just a mementary awareness. Denial often blocks MOEs. Anger stops MOEs when it is actually an indicator of an MOE. And bargaining dilutes MOEs.

Decision: Because of the Moment of Enlightenment, a decision is made. But it may not be a good decision. So you're either stuck with the decision (externally imposed change) or you stick with the decision (internally motivated change). By itself, a decision isn't change, but just a fleeting commitment. Bargaining can dilute a decision, and depression can cause you to give up a decision all together.

Sustained Action: Because of the decision, behavior is changed. The changed behavior is sustained long enough to become a habit. In the military, this is called training. Sustained action leads to change. Sliding back on the five stages of change stops this. Acceptance isn't easy because your reality has changed!

Time to expand your comfort zone, by going into your courage zone. Courage is needed on the path to changing you and developing your self confidence!

As mentioned earlier, Bob's workshop was awesome! It was also inspiring and encouraging! Be sure to check out Bob's "Who Dares Wins" homepage at so you can become a warrior writer!

Are you ready for change?

Follow me on Twitter: @maria_mckenzie.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Everything's Peachy!

Summer is my favorite time of year. I'd rather be hot than at all cold any time! Although summer doesn't officially begin until June 21, it's unofficial start is Memorial Day--and that's good enough for me!

With summer comes an abundance of fresh fruit: watermelon, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, cantelope, and more!

When I was growing up, my mom always made a variety of fresh fruit cobblers and pies during the summer. I'm not nearly as Martha Stewart like as she is, but I can make a luscious peach cobbler. This recipe is low fat and delicious! Serve warm with a scoop of fat free vanilla ice cream, or fat free evaporated milk! Enjoy!

Peach Cobbler

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
4 t cornstrach
1/4 t ground nutmeg
1/2 cup water
4 cups sliced fresh peaches (can use canned)
1 T lemon juice
1 cup flour
2 T granulated sugar
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/4 cup fat free plain yogurt
3 T lowfat margarine
1 slightly beaten egg
1/4 cup skim milk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In medium saucepan combine brown sugar, cornstarch and nutmeg. Add water. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Add peaches and lemon juice. Heat through. Remove from heat and set aside.

For topping, stir together flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in yogurt and margarine until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Combine egg and milk. Add to dry ingredients just to moisten.

Turn filling into 8x1 1/2 inch round baking dish or 1 1/2 quart casserole. Spread on topping. Bake at 400 for about 20 minutes. Serves 6.

What's your favorite summer fruit dessert?

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pitching to an Agent

I'm happy to report that my first experience pitching to an agent was a very pleasant one. I had the opportunity to do this at the Lori Foster Reader and Author Get Together in West Chester, Ohio. For an excellent rundown of this event, check out Renee Vincent's blog at

Before attending the conference, I asked several writers for advice about pitching. Some of the most important things I learned were:
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare!
  • Do your research. Make sure the agent you talk to represents the type of book you've written.
  • Be in love with your story, know it inside and out, and be enthusiastic about it!
  • Prepare a two to three sentence summary of the book, complete with hook, description and word count.
  • Be prepared to describe something that makes your book unique.
  • Be prepared to explain your target audience and age demographic.
  • Be prepared to tell what authors your writing style resembles.
  • Be preparedd to ask the agent questions, such as, "What are you looking for in a first time author?"
  • Be professional. The pitch is like a job interview.
  • You really won't know what to expect!

I felt prepared. But after pitching my three sentence summary, the agent only asked one question, specifically about my book, that I hadn't expected! Even though my answer wasn't polished, since I hadn't anticipated that question, the agent still expressed interest and asked me to submit a few pages and a synopsis. Of course she can't commit to anything until she's read my material to determine if it's a proper fit for her agency.

Overall, the pitch was a positive experience, and the agent I spoke to was kind, approachable, and gave me her undivided attention. My best advice to anyone pitching--be prepared, because you really won't know what to expect!

What's your best advice for pitching to an agent or editor?

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Research: Sometimes People Can be Your Best Resources

"Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose." Zora Neale Hurston

Lately, I've noticed lots of questions popping up in the Writers Digest Fiction Writers online community that deal with research. As a former librarian, this is one of my favorite topics!

As writers, we want to be accurate with our information, so we won't look ignorant to our readers. But our mission is writing, not research, so we have to be careful not to let our research become a time drain from our writing.

Somtimes, when trying to nail down facts to add credibility to a story, you can run into a dead end. When you've exhausted all print and online sources, calling the library can be the next possible step--or, how about seeking information from an expert?

Not long ago I asked my husband's advice on a scene I'd written involving a dynamite explosion. My husband knows explosives, but he's not an expert--he just built bombs as a kid. Miraculously, he still has two eyes and ten fingers. After I read my scene, he ripped it to shreds. Granted, at that point, I hadn't done any research. I'd only used what I'd seen on TV as a guide--never a good idea. My husband couldn't answer all my questions about dynamite, so my first in-house stop was an encyclopedia, and then the Internet.

Although I found lots of information, I couldn't find the answer to every single question I had in order to write a believable scene. Instead of going to the library, checking out a bunch of books and investing more time, I decided to locate a human resource--someone who could give me more than I'd find in a stack of books for the particular episode I wanted to create. After playing around for a little while online, I found an International Society of Explosive Engineers. With local chapters all across the country, I called the chapter chairman closest to me.

Understandably wary, he informed me that usually, he couldn't answer questions unless someone had gone through the proper channels. After trying to convince him that I really wasn't a terrorist, he asked me to explain what I was looking for, then told me he'd decide what he could answer. After the first few minutes, he realized I was safe and literally had no clue, whatsoever, about explosives.

He taught me more about dynamite than I'll ever need to know. My source even provided a more realistic scenario for what I was trying to describe, as well as a way to kill off a bad guy in the aftermath of an explosion, while the good guy survives. This contact gave me 45 minutes of his valuable time, answered all my questions, and let me pick his brain!

Nothing like communicating with human resources the good old fashioned way--talking! Sometimes that can be the most useful research out there!

Do you have a fun adventure in research to share?

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