Cooking and Composition

adventures in discourse and dinner

NaNo 2013: How Am I Spending My Last Free Hours? — October 30, 2013

NaNo 2013: How Am I Spending My Last Free Hours?

NaNo starts in less than 48 hours and what am I doing?


It’s sadly not for lack of trying. I’m having the absolute worst time focusing on anything right now. This is really all you need to know to understand how I am feeling right now:


Is there anything worse? I’ve spent all day Monday and today meeting with students about their research projects. I spent all day yesterday in bed, hoping that it would make me feel better. It did not. I am now back in bed, under a pile of blankets, including a heated one.

This does not bode well for productivity.

Nor does the fact that I almost lost all of my planning when I had to uninstall and reinstall the Scrivener NaNo trial.

I wanted to spend this evening grading a few papers and making my characters on The Sims, something I had been planning to do all month, but I kind of got caught up in playing the new Island Paradise expansion pack.

So far, my NaNoWriMo experience is not looking too promising unless my productivity and health levels improve soon. I did, however, enjoy reading the first NaNo Prep Talk of the year! I will admit I am not familiar with Rainbow Rowell, but I am definitely going to have to check her out. Her novel Fangirl was a NaNo 2011 success. Her resonating words of advice?

That 50,000-word pile I made wasn’t a mess at all. It’s some of the bravest writing I’ve ever done, and it includes my all-time favorite character, a guy I think I would’ve second-guessed to death under normal circumstances. NaNoWriMo helped me push past so many of my doubts and insecurities and bad habits. And I think that’s partly why I love Fangirl so much now—because I remember how swept away I felt when I was writing it.”

Thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Here’s hoping I see you later with my 50,000-word pile.

November: Not Just For Novel Writing — October 28, 2013

November: Not Just For Novel Writing

My books, just waiting to be written! (Image by shutterhacks on Flickr)

Hold the phones, Novel. You are not the only thing November is about anymore.

A few years ago, when I first want to participate in NaNoWriMo, I prioritized my academic writing and ended up not writing any of the novel I never planned. If only I had known I was participating in a proto version of Academic Writing Month (formerly Academic Book Writing Month), in which scholars adapt the idea goal of NaNoWriMo to focus on their scholarly writing and endeavors. A colleague of mine recently posted about it, and — I’m not going to lie — I wish I had known that this had been happening over the past two years.

Part of me feels kind of guilty for not participating this year, even. I know that maybe sounds silly. A few months ago, I was very gung-ho about turning part of my master’s thesis into publishable journal articles. I even had notes written down about the best way to revise and focus some of my chapters into something slightly more meaningful and productive.

Then I started my new job, and all I have really done is plan for classes and grade papers. And now I am starting to get new ideas about publishing and, even worse, I am starting to feel further and further away from my master’s research project. That loss of closeness makes me worry about where I will ever actually attempt to publish any of that work.

As if it weren’t enough to have two national writing months in November, you could also be gearing up to participate in National Blog Posting Month. According to BlogHer, NaBloPoMo happens every month, but November happens to be the biggest turn out and, thus, has become its sort of “official month.” The goal is simply to post on your personal blog every day.

To be honest, I feel a little overwhelmed by all of these national writing months happening all at once. Of course, I recognize that I am not responsible for participating in all (or any!) of these months, but the opportunity to do so leaves me facing tough decisions. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that I really miss the cathartic release of creative writing, and for once I even have an idea that I think stands a chance of reaching 50,000 words. On the other hand, participating in AcWriMo could actually help further my scholarly career and academic interests by getting me to focus on the ideas I have for potential publications.

On another hand (because I have three, clearly), I don’t necessarily feel the need to buy into all of these gimmicky events, but I do like that they bring people together to focus on communal goals. And, as the blogger over at The Voices in My Head wrote, maybe participating in NaBloPoMo could help one participate in NaNoWriMo (or AcWriMo, for that matter).

It seems completely do-able to participate in two of the three, and I recognize that I would probably be crazy to try to teach five classes, grade multiple papers of 125 students, and participate in three month-long writing challenges. I’m an overachiever, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for that kind of commitment, especially when Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

Friday Favorites: Game of Thrones Characters — October 25, 2013

Friday Favorites: Game of Thrones Characters

Friday Favorites

Today I’m starting a new weekly feature here at Cooking and Composition: Friday Favorites. This week I’m starting with my five favorite Game of Thrones characters. After reading some other Top Ten Tuesday posts this week, I was left thinking about all of the great characters in GoT that I can’t get enough of.

343/365 - Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones by Loimere, on Flickr

Now that I’ve finished all of the novels that are out, I’m surprised at how much my favorites have shifted over the series. Sure, I like almost all of the characters well enough, but there are a few that I really, really hate and a few who I’ve definitely changed my opinion of over the pages. But I’m sure my favorites align with quite a few other readers, and that wouldn’t leave this blog with anything fun to say about any of them.

Instead, I’d like to take a minute (just sit right there) to consider my five favorite potentially underrated characters. If you haven’t finished all of the ASoIaF series, do not read any more! You will be disappointed by spoilers. Sorry!

Continue reading

NaNoWriMo 2013: Sharing Your Work — October 24, 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013: Sharing Your Work

"Writing", 22 November 2008
“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle)

Are intellectual property rights a real concern for writers who also blog about their writing, especially during NaNoWriMo?

I’ve been wondering about this quite a bit lately. Among friends, I have no reservations sharing my plots, characters, settings, etc. I will divulge even the silly details that don’t seem all that necessary to know in order for my characters to achieve their goals or for the plot to move from Point A to Point B.

In fact, I would love to share more of the details here, too. But I noticed something interesting last week when I downloaded Scrivener’s free NaNo trial. One of it’s features is the ability to scramble your words on output only. I had to ask my friend and partner-in-laughing-too-loud-in-public-places-crime why anyone would want to do that.

“So other people can’t steal your crap,” she said, quickly clarifying that she did not think my writing was crap.

Every time I think about posting about my NaNo plans, I start wondering if there are shady NaNo writers out there, just waiting to pounce on my words and *gasp* plagiarize my upcoming novel in some way. Or just shady observers who might do it, too. I suppose such sneakery would not be limited to people participating in the writing sprint.

Part of me thinks it would be ridiculous to worry over someone stealing one of my characters or my overall novel idea; yet this stuff happens all the time (remember that person who sued Stephenie Meyer? I mean, who would want to claim that they had written that?) It’s not that I think so highly of my own novel that I am legitimately concerned that someone would snatch up the idea and then potentially do it better (the horror); in reality, I know that the novel I’m planning is probably not going to change anyone’s world or break some sort of ground in the American literary frontier.

I am sure that some people’s decisions to share have more to do with personal comfort levels and less to do with concern that someone is waiting to rip off their ideas. But I have noticed that in general, most people aren’t divulging much information about their novels or characters. Do you think it is possible to overshare when it comes to your writing ideas?

Other writers, particularly others participating in National Novel Writing Month, what are your thoughts on the matter? Why do you (not) share what you share?



Top Ten Tuesday: A Rose by Any Other Name — October 22, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: A Rose by Any Other Name

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday (from The Broke and the Bookish) is totally up my alley: Ten Character Names You Love/Ten Unusual Character Names (and for me, these usually go hand in hand). Character names are super important to me, both when writing and when reading. I noticed this first when in a fiction workshop, a girl wrote a story that was meant to be a modern retelling of Alice in Wonderland (or something?) and named the main character Alyce or Alys or some ridiculous spelling of it, even though no one in her family was as obsessed with the original work as the main character (fact: I don’t think anyone else in the story even liked it). I could not get over how utterly unrealistic it was that her family would (a) name her after the Wonderland character or (b) give her an annoyingly bastardized version of the name, given the setting of the story and the otherwise “traditional” family names.

I’m all for being creative, but Alyce? Really? Yuck. At least give me a reason to have spelled the name differently. You really aren’t helping your character anyway.

But I digress. This post is not about bad character names I’ve read in fiction-writing workshop (though, the fact that this one has stuck with me for about 4 years really says something about my obsession with having appropriate character names). There are some characters whose names I really love; these are the characters I could not imagine (that could not make sense to me) by any other name.

Cooking & Compositions Top Ten Best Character Names

Septimus (and his six older brothers), from Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All of the sons of the Lord of Stormhold have excellent names, denoting the order in which they were born. This is simple, memorable, and works really well for the genre Gaiman is writing in. I also like Septimus because it sounds very distinguished.

Bernard Marx, from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World is one of the first books I can remember reading where the character names were allusions. I think this is probably the book one of the books to which I can attribute my obsession with having good character names. Plus, Bernard Marx flows really well, and the trip-R is soothing paired with the harsh X at the end of the name.

Oedipa Maas, from The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.

from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of user Zafiroblue05

Oedipa Maas (and every other allusion to anything else in the book) is like finding a puzzle piece that has the right curves and corners on all the right sides, but it just doesn’t fit. Oedipa, of course, is an allusion to good ole Oedipus, but I don’t recall if there are really many parallels between Oedipa and Oedipus (it’s been a while since I’ve read Lot 49). I also had a third grade teacher named Mrs. Maas, so the last name draws up a lot of pleasant memories for me.

Doris Kilman, from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Again we have a name that really represents the character. Doris and Kilman are both ugly names. Doris Kilman is not a pleasant woman in the novel. Her name is a stand-out, though, because it seems like a very normal, mundane name. I could imagine a person actually being named this. Some people are just granted with unfortunate names. Does the person make the name, or is it the other way around? These relationships are just more apparent in fiction.

Snowman, from the MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood.

A Snowman on a Frozen Lake, from Wikimedia Commons user Petritrap

There are a lot of names I could have placed here, but I picked Snowman because I think his name most obviously represents him. There is Glenn/Crake and the Crakers, and also Oryx, all names that I like because of relationship to extinct animals in the novels. But Jimmy as the Snowman is perfect. He doesn’t look much like the Crakers, which his name represents. I also like this name because I think of snowmen as very fragile things. It’s not that Snowman is necessarily fragile, but he’s definitly at risk of melting away as one of the last members of his species. I have MaddAddam on my bookshelf, taunting me until I am finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I’ll be honest: I can’t wait to meet back up with all of the characters and see where things go.

Rowena Ravenclaw, from Harry Potter by JK Rowling. Again, another book where I could have listed a lot of characters. I love alliteration (so all of the founding Hogwarts wizards are a possibility), and I have named a lot of cars after HP characters. But I love Rowena Ravenclaw because it’s just so musical. Rowena is also a very unique-sounding name, but one that feels like it could be common. I also like it because Rowena isn’t a popular character, so only people who are really into the books or movies understand what my car’s name is. Because yes, my car’s name is Rowena, and yes, I might have purchased her in blue just so I could name my car Rowena. These are serious things to consider.

The boy, from The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I bet this one feels like it’s coming out of left field. But Caitlin, you’re thinking, how can you like such a generic name when the whole premise of your post is that you like names that are really strong, that really represent the character? But that’s the point exactly! The generalness, the emptiness of just calling the boy “the boy,” or son, and never explicitly naming him says so much. This boy could be any boy. This father could be any father.  For me, there is something really powerful about that.

Tally Youngblood, from Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.

Tally was not initially on my list. I love the Uglies series, but for the life of my I could not think of what any of the characters’ names are. I haven’t read these books in years, but I still consider them very, very fondly. They are some of my favorite books. So when I was one short for this list, I did a google search to find a list of the characters. I immediately remembered how much this name suits the character, especially early in the novel. There is something both generic and unique about it, fitting the person Tally becomes over the series. To cement her ranking in my list, I also found this awesome post from Scott Westerfeld’s blog about the origins of the character names in Uglies.

Offred, from The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

The Flag of Gilead, from Wikimedia Commons user Voldemort.

This listing is similar to the one for The Road. Offred is not a great name. It does not signify great things. In fact, it shows all to well the objectification of women in the novel, the way that most of them are stripped of their identities (and thus their humanity). Unlike some of the other handmaids’ names (I’m thinking of Ofwarren and Ofglen), Offred fits together really well, and has a creepily soothing tone to it. It is not harsh or difficult to say. It seems to signify that whoever is Offred (because whoever comes after the protagonist will be Offred, too) is perfectly suited to the part. We know that this is not true. Not all of the Offreds fit the role society has left for them. For me, Offred reminds me of issues with traditional naming conventions (like the fact that Mrs., traditionally, stands for “wife of” and is traditional only used with the male’s name, diminishing the woman’s place and identity).

Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Sagittaria, or the Katniss Plant. From Wikimedia Commons.

This name is last because it’s my favorite name on the list. At first, before I had read The Hunger Games, I will admit that I did not quite “get it.” What kind of name is Katniss? Oh, it’s a flower? How cute. But then there is that scene when Katniss talks about going out hunting with her father, and he tells her that if she can find herself, she’ll succeed/never go hungry/always be awesome. I don’t remember the exact phrasing. But being true to yourself is a key theme of the novels, especially for Katniss and her ability to win the Games. Although I’m sure Katniss is about to become one of those trendy names (I feel like I’ve even read something about the name becoming more popular for babies), I think it’s a great character name that connects well to one of the overarching themes of the book.

NaNo Planning: Developing Characters — October 18, 2013

NaNo Planning: Developing Characters

The Sims 3 is considered one of the most popul...
The Sims 3 is considered one of the most popular games of the 2010s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of the people I know who are planning to participate in NaNoWriMo this year are scattered across various states, so we recently formed a Facebook group plotting, planning, conversing, and whining. A few days ago, our discussion turned to alternative tools we use to develop various parts of our writing, like character or setting.

Characterization, for me, is probably the most important part of my story, likely because it is something I have always struggled with. It is not that I tend to poorly create characters. Rather, in fiction I always worked very hard to distance the characters from me, resulting in stereotypical and often very flat characters.

And really, no one wants to ready story if the characters aren’t interesting.

One of the things I learned in a fiction workshop that has actually stuck with me over the past 4 or 5 years is to know my characters. If you can’t think of a plot, put your character in a situation they would obviously be uncomfortable in, and see what they do. Considering this has helped me write a lot in the past.

It’s a bit harder for me to have a vague idea of the plot but not a strong idea of who my characters are. If I can develop a good character, I can write a story. But for NaNo this year, I seem to be working in reverse. I have developed a vague notion of the plot and what events/actions a variety of characters will need to go through in order for the plot to succeed. All I know about these characters is that they are women.

Thanks to my NaNo support group, I am returning to one of my favorite games, The Sims, to help me develop a sense of who each of my characters are. If you have never played The Sims, the third installment of the game introduced a variety of traits that you give to your Sims. In the base game, you have a max of 5 traits per adult Sim, but with the University Life expansion you can add an additional two traits for earning a degree and reaching the top of a social group. I find this limitation really helpful because it allows me to focus on the defining characteristics of each of my Sims. I noticed that sometimes even if you don’t give a trait to a specific Sim, you may still see some of those elements.

For example, I almost never use the clumsy trait. It was randomly assigned to one of my Sims, and later, her daughter would trip all the time even though she did not have the clumsy trait herself. While this may be a glitch (I haven’t noticed it too much), thinking about character development in this way is going to force me to decide on the major traits each of my characters will associate with, with the ultimate goal being not to have all of my characters have the same traits. This will also make it easy because I sometimes like to create my characters in the Sims and “play” them in Sims worlds.

Because my plot is partially developed already, I’m going to spend some time over the weekend creating my characters and getting to know who they are. Hopefully, this means oodles of fun playing The Sims or a lot of productivity because Sims-style characterization worked for me. We will see.

What do you use to develop characters for your writing? What tips or resources do you have that might help develop stronger characters?

Top Ten Books I was “Forced” To Read — October 15, 2013

Top Ten Books I was “Forced” To Read

I am super intrigued by The Broke and The Bookish‘s weekly feature, Top Ten Tuesday, wherein people make lists about books. What could be better than that? I wanted to start participating last week, but I was stumped by the prompt: Top Ten Best/Worst Series Enders. What a challenge, especially considering I’m not sure I’ve actually completed 10 book series. . .or at least ten where I felt the same way about the endings.

So I passed and am jumping in now, with this list on Top Ten Books I was Forced To Read. This is actually pretty easy because I have done a lot of reading through school, and I usually ended up liking what we read.

10. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

9. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

8. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

7. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

6. The Stand by Stephen King

5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

4. City of Thieves by David Benioff

3. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

2. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

And Number 1 is. . .

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


Okay, so I actually discovered that this was harder to do than I expected. Most of the books that I really love are books that I read because of one of the books I was forced to read. Or sometimes I really did find really cool books on my own, without any body else’s prompting! Who knew?