All Gifts

Today I’m going to share with you one of my poems. “All Gifts” was first published in A Texas Garden of Verses, the Poetry Society of Texas 2013 summer conference anthology. Enjoy!

All Gifts

“And speech [Hephaestus]
the herald of the gods put in, and named the maid
Pandora, since all those who hold Olympian homes
had given gifts to her, sorrows for hard-working men.”
           –Hesiod, Works and Days

He hunches over his work,
shoulders bunched
with surprising power,
feels sweat drip from his
straight Greek nose,
hears it sizzle as a drop hits the fire.

Made of gifts.

He drags his leg
irregularly behind him
as he moves
from fire to water,
dipping hot metal frame
to solidify shape.

She will be perfect.

When the fire of creation
has cooled,
he plumps her up
with fresh earth,
a shell of clay,
a robe of skin.

Sent as punishment.
 
The breath of life
washes warmly
from his misshapen lips,
mild with stutter,
gentled by fear.

She… She will be perfect.

And then he must give her up.

© Annie Neugebauer, 2011.
All rights reserved.

Posted in My Works | 4 Comments

My Advice to My Newbie Writer Self: 20 Things I Wish I’d Known 7 Years Ago

1. Get on Twitter and into the blogosphere as soon as possible. Don’t worry about numbers, retweets, or “building a platform.” You don’t even have to actually blog. Just follow all the experts you can find and begin learning. Knowledgeable people share tips in these places that they don’t say anywhere else.

2. Use WordPress to build your blog. Just… trust me.

3. Don’t believe what Wikipedia has to say about word counts. Look up acceptable lengths according to actual industry professionals before starting your first novel. (For example, 40,000 words is much too short while 150,000 is far too long.)

4. Never promote someone you don’t want to be associated with. People take your suggestions seriously. Back-scratching isn’t worth tainting your professional reputation with negative connections.

5. There are teachers everywhere. Find them, learn from them, and never be too proud to take knowledge from someone with more experience than you. Or for that matter, from someone with less experience than you. Knowledge is knowledge.

6. Never feed the trolls. Get negative people and influences out of your life as quickly as possible and as fully as possible. When that’s not an option, kill them with kindness. When that doesn’t work, ignore them.

7. Don’t expect your family and friends to read everything you write. Not even your blog. It’s not personal. Promise.

8. Listen to your internal voice; if you’re tempted to send or publish something petty, controversial, personal, or combative… put it in the incubator. This goes for emails, tweets, blog posts, and Facebook statuses. If you still want to do it after three days, go ahead. (But you won’t.)

9. Don’t post information about your submission process online. Don’t blog about your query stages. Don’t tweet about going on submission. Don’t announce on Facebook when you get a manuscript request. Agents and editors google potential clients, and you never know what will put them off. Realizing you’ve already been querying for two years doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. And realizing they must be your 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th-string choice isn’t flattering.

10. Learn to drop the defenses. If you receive critique that hurts, take a few days to recover, but then go back to it. That’s probably the feedback you most need to hear.

11. Think very hard before paying anyone for any service or information. For example, why pay a company to help you find good agents to query when Agent Query and Query Tracker are free?

12. Learn your market. Seriously. Read every book you can get your hands on. Classics that paved the way. Staples that changed the road. New releases creating buzz. Read them all. Read them now. Learn everything you can about what’s successful and why. Reading will not “drain your creative energy.” It won’t “bias your ideas” either. It will teach you techniques, familiarize you with your market, and make you that much more adept and professional in your fields. Reading is part of your job now. (And doesn’t that rock?)

13. Listen to praise. Learn your strengths. There’s no merit badge for ignoring compliments. Knowing your strong suits can help you utilize them fully; being aware of strengths makes you a better and more well-equipped writer.

14. Don’t let people convince you that you need a “thicker skin.” Your skin is just fine. You should feel passionately about the things you’ve created, and it should hurt when someone rejects that. The important thing is to separate self from work. They aren’t rejecting you; they’re rejecting a particular project. For one thing, that’s subjective. For another, you can always create more projects. Accept the hurt, but then move past it. (It does get easier — usually.)

15. Flex that patience muscle. The waiting never goes away; learn to implement productive distractions. (I.e.: Start writing the next thing. Always.)

16. Give back to the community as much as possible while still remaining productive and focused. Don’t be greedy with your time, but also learn to say no.

17. Writing is important, yes, but so is submitting. You’re prolific enough that you’ll never catch up with your short story and poetry submissions, so submit the best ones as you go. This, too, is a part of the job. No one can read your creations if you don’t put yourself out there.

18. Never be ashamed of your early work. Learn from your mistakes and keep growing.

19. Trust your gut. Arm yourself with knowledge and consider all the options, but trust your gut. It usually knows what’s up.

20. Never give up. But of course, you know that, or you wouldn’t be here now.

Posted in Advice for Writers | 32 Comments

Thoughts on Franz Kafka

My favorite authors to discuss are dead authors, especially “the classics.” There’s something fascinating to me about reading one of the classics, especially for the first time as an adult, in order to form my own opinion. I’m obsessed with that feeling. It’s a strange combination of trust and skepticism, eagerness and dread, pleasure and work. To read something others have deemed great and decide for myself if I agree or disagree – and why. At worst it’s a fantastic way to exercise critical thinking. At best I discover a new master of writing to appreciate. (You can find my other such discussions under the “Not Quite Book Reviews” category tag.)

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My most recent adventure was Franz Kafka, the world-renowned nineteenth-century author from Prague, who was a Jewish man writing in German. (English-speakers read translations of his work, obviously. I think this fact alone is daunting and perhaps off-putting to many modern readers, which is a shame.) I picked up a “Barnes & Noble Classics” edition of his collected short stories called Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories translated by Donna Freed with introduction and notes by Jason Baker.

Kafka’s most famous story is “The Metamorphosis,” a novella in which a young salesman wakes up transformed into a giant roach-like insect. I knew the premise, and I knew that Kafka often dealt with the surreal and the depressing, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for reading his work. “The Metamorphosis” was a great and fascinating read. It really was. I quickly realized that Kafka has an uncanny talent for blending the surreal/supernatural with the ordinary in such a way that I forgot which was what as I was reading. What seemed impossible to me were characters’ reactions to this bug man, not the bug man himself. It was a really enjoyable sense of unreality and the bizarre. (This is a similar skill to Shirley Jackson, but it’s executed in an entirely different way.)

Unlike Lovecraft, who I found both wonderful and disappointing at the same time, Kafka’s prose is excellent, as is his story structure. He truly is a master. His concepts are unique, but his themes and general tone are usually pretty redundant (though not exhaustingly so). He explores existentialism and futility through complicated and volatile family relationships – usually father/son – and often comments on art/the life of an artist and how that relates to society as a whole. He’s obsessed with failure, and, ironically, I got the impression that his willingness to embrace himself as a failure (both a failed artist and a failed son) is what makes him so accessible despite his difficulty level, and so memorable as a storyteller. In short, he’s depressing as hell, but relatable. He puts his heart out there, and I loved him for it, even when he bummed me out.

“The Metamorphosis” might be Kafka’s most famous story, but by far my favorite in this collection was “A Hunger Artist,” sometimes translated as “A Starvation Artist.” The story is about a man who travels as a type of avant-garde artist who goes on exhibit for willfully starving himself. (Strangely, it reminded me of an episode of Sex & the City where they view almost that exact concept as an art exhibit.) I won’t give the story away, but I will say that I thought it was honestly brilliant. It’s arguably surreal, but it struck me as not only believable but realistic. People are obsessed with “danger acts” and “shock value” entertainment. I can actually imagine this type of thing happening in real life, and that made the story all the more powerful to me. It can be interpreted in many ways, but regardless of what you take away from it, I doubt you’ll be disappointed in the craft of his writing. I highly recommend it.

Some brief thoughts on other stories in this collection. The second story was “The Judgment,” and this was when I realized I’d have to relax my rationale a bit to enjoy Kafka. “The Metamorphosis” was surprisingly coherent to me, but after reading “The Judgment” I had to look up analyses online to make sure I hadn’t missed something. (I hadn’t; it’s surreal and somewhat nonsensical.) I didn’t particularly care for “The Stoker” or “An Old Leaf,” but “In the Penal Colony” was amazing and highly disturbing. “A Country Doctor” eventually won me over on a second read, and “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse People” had undeniable charm as well as highlighting Kafka’s dark, wry, delightedly twisted sense of humor. “Before the Law” made me incredibly sad, which I guess means it was well done, especially for such a short piece.

I have one other thought after reading Kafka; he’s at least sometimes a horror writer. I think “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” and “A Hunger Artist” are almost undeniably horror stories (and damn good ones). I say almost undeniably because there are many, many people out there afraid to admit when something good is horror, and Kafka definitely gets the runaround. I’ve already read at least one respected critic who claims Kafka would be a lowly speculative fiction author if it weren’t for his exceptional talent. (Spoiler: he’s still a speculative fiction author; talent doesn’t somehow negate that.) If one more person claims a fabulous story/book/author “doesn’t count as horror” because it’s good I’m going to have to punch someone. Case in point? No one even told me Kafka was a master at horror, or I probably would’ve gotten to him long before now. Luckily I discovered him on my own.

Let’s wrap this up before I descend into full-blow rant territory. Did Kafka change my life? No, but he might’ve changed my writing, and he definitely broadened my reading. Do I think he’s worth the time? Yes, for avid readers and classic literature lovers, though casual leisure readers might be put off by his style. If nothing else, I think everyone should read “The Metamorphosis” to better understand allusions and references in popular culture as well “The Hunger Artist” because I think it’s his best work. He eked into my current top 40 favorite books at number 36.

Have you read any Kafka? What did you think?

Posted in Authors | Tagged | 15 Comments

The Best Warm Sugar Cookie Recipe

As you might’ve noticed, I’ve been MIA lately. Part of it was just a summer slow-down, but for the past two weeks I’ve been on vacation. I spent the first week camping in Colorado with my husband, and my brother joined us for a few days too. It was a blast.

The second week ended up being a staycation, which wasn’t the plan, but we made it fun. We went to the Fort Worth Zoo, visited the Dallas Arboretum, had several Netfix marathons, and just enjoyed not working. For me, this obviously includes baking cookies.

sugar cookies [Can’t wait? Click here to skip to the recipe.]

On Tuesday I posted the photo above on my Facebook (You can like my public page here or follow my personal profile here!) and my friends pretty much demanded that I share the recipe. So after a little sleuthing online to make sure recipes aren’t copyright (the wording is but the actual recipe is not), I decided to oblige. But first, a few things to know.

What do I look for in a cookie? A soft, chewy texture. Cakey or crumbly is as far as it goes; crunchy and crispy cookies have no place in my repertoire. (Why would you blemish a perfectly good cookie with nuts? At least raisins make a cookie chewy and chocolate chips make it melty. Nuts are expendable in my kitchen.) I tend toward simple, satisfying flavors over the experimental. I don’t need “unusual” combinations and I don’t want to go buy ingredients I haven’t heard of just to try a new recipe. Every once in a while I’ll try something a little iffy, but for the most part, for me, cookies are a comfort food. I want fail-proof palate pleasers that I’ll make again and again. The sugar cookie recipe I found in this 2013 Better Homes and Gardens Holiday magazine fits the bill; I know I’ll make them again.

best cookies

My husband ate six of the cookies before I could even get him a plate. That’s how good they are fresh from the oven. (I ate three.) However, the leftover cookies have sat on my counter for five days now and still aren’t all gone, which means the cooled cookies aren’t anything to brag about as far as “the cookie jar” goes. (Other cookies have gone much faster at my house.) But I’ve been hunting for years now for the perfect fresh-from-the-oven classic sugar cookie recipe, and this is it. They’re simple, sweet, soft, and absolutely to die for with a cold glass of milk. The recipe is hard to halve because it has an odd number of eggs, so in the future I’ll probably either keep the dough in the fridge and make one sheet at a time for optimal freshness or just save them for when a bigger group of people is over.

Here’s the recipe for what I’m now calling:

The Best Warm Sugar Cookies

½ cup butter, softened
½ cup shortening
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 egg yolks
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

Preheat your oven to 300°F. Beat the butter and shortening together with the paddle attachment of an electric mixer for 30 seconds. Add sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt, mixing until combined. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla, followed by the flour.

Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and place about an inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. (I love using parchment paper.) The recipe doesn’t call for a sugar coating, but I like my sugar cookies sprinkled with sugar for that nice crystalized layer.

Bake for 12-14 minutes, until edges are set but not browned. Leave on the cookie sheet to cool for 2 minutes (this helps achieve a nice chewy texture), then move to cooling racks to cool completely. Or, you know, shovel them directly into your mouth. Wash down with cold milk and send me thank you presents. If you can’t eat all you’ve made, they can be stored in an airtight container for several days and are still pretty good.

You can also view this recipe on the BH&G website. These warm cookies are lovely crowd-pleasers. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did! Please let me know if you like having cookie recipes here on the blog. (If I get a good response I might share some of my favorites in the future.)

Happy baking!

Posted in Recipes | 13 Comments