Stuffed crown roast of frankfurters

My apartment building, like many others, has a book exchange shelf in the laundry room. There I acquired the United States Regional Cookbook, published by the Culinary Arts Institute of Chicago in 1939. It’s a little yellowed, a little stained, and a little surprising.

The book is divided into ten sections, each devoted to a different region: Creole, Michigan Dutch, Southwestern, Mississippi Valley, Cosmopolitan America… In some ways it’s a look back at an America that has ceased to be for most of us. Recipes include opossum (Southern), reindeer (Western), salt codfish (New England), green kern soup (Pennsylvania Dutch; green kern is unripe grain), and lutfisk (Minnesota Scandinavian, of course, and the recipe calls for oak or maple ashes).

I should add that the casual racism of the Southern section makes my fingernails curl up, although the book does acknowledge — in different, unrepeatable terms — that many of the recipes come from African-American cooks.

The old book also includes plenty of good recipes whose ingredients I can still easily get and would enjoy, including potato soup (many varieties), apple salad, hunter’s style duck, and Kentucky fried chicken, which is pre-cooked chicken dipped in batter and deep-fried. (Now we know the colonel’s secret recipe!)

The Wisconsin Dutch section really means German: Deutsche. I grew up in Wisconsin and my great-grandmother was Wilhelmina Bertha Amelia von Haus. I was raised on braised pot roast, käsekuchen (cheese cake), sour cream potato salad, and stollen.

But stuffed crown roast of frankfurters? I think somebody pranked the editor. Still, it could be a lot of fun to bring to a Green Bay Packers tailgate party. Those are always exuberant affairs.

An alternate reality

Why do some people doubt objective reality?

One explanation I’ve heard says this: It is possible to believe that everything in the world works through human structures. Human beings control everything. If you complain to the right people, problems get solved. If problems do not get solved, a conspiracy is refusing to solve them for its own advantage.

In this worldview, external forces are under human control, and they should respond to us, not vice versa. This includes, for example, viruses, the cold math of vote counting, and the changing climate. “We only need to complain forcefully enough to the correct people and make them listen. Then they will make things be the way we think they should be. We have the right not just to hold our individual beliefs but to have them accepted and acted on as truth.

In science fiction, however, external forces tend to drive our stories. We can’t control the universe, no matter how much we don’t like it. We are mere human beings — but if we understand what’s actually happening, we can respond effectively. The genre encourages a grounding in reality, which gives it strength.

The “pitch” to sell your speculative novel

So you’ve written a novel and you’re ready to sell it. First, celebrate that you’ve written a novel and you’re ready to sell it! That was a lot of hard work.

Next, you’ll need to write a “pitch”: a brief summary to intrigue and excite potential agents, editors, and readers. Is this hard? Yes. Everything about writing is hard. But here are some approaches that may make it less painful. Your goal is to show what’s special and different about your story and your writing.

(Some of these approaches may also help when you’re thinking about writing a novel. What story do you want to tell? Screenwriters sometimes use a log line, which defines the theme of the project, as both a writing aid and a sales pitch.)

Some possible approaches:

• Plot summary, the most common pitch: “A hired assassin earns parole – to another universe full of worse criminals than herself. She must kill or be killed, win the favor of the ‘boss,’ and all the while try to find her way home to the people she loves.”

• A question. One or two works best: “What if there were ghosts in every single house?”

• Connection to the agent or publisher: “Because you love supernatural romances…”

• Comparison with other works: “The racoon from Guardians of the Galaxy travels to 1984.”

• A very short excerpt if (and only if) it grabs the reader, sounds unique, and stands alone. Editors love unique, authoritative voices.

• A trope with a twist: “This novel is about an evil emperor’s grand wizard – but magic doesn’t really work in this world. Everyone just thinks it does.”

• Something relevant about you, if applicable. For example, with military fiction: “I’ve served in the armies of two different countries, and…”

• A unique, fresh, compelling setting or concept: “Mars is terraformed using time travel.”

• A fascinating character: “An old man runs a bar for leprechauns. He hates leprechauns.”

• The emotional journey of the characters within the events of the plot. Make sure the pitch anchors the journey to the events: “A princess learns humility when…”

• The protagonist’s choices, and the results of the choice taken. This is one way to approach a plot summary.

• The antagonist’s daring gambit and the protagonist’s reaction, another way to approach the plot summary.

• The reason for the novel’s title, if it leads into the plot and characters.

Based on my presentation for a workshop at the 2018 StoryStudio Chicago Writers Festival.

Novel news!


Interference: The sequel to Semiosis is now available as a trade paperback, available through all major outlets and local bookstores. Links here. It’s still available as an audiobook, ebook, and hardcover.

Semiosis: The French translation is now available as an audiobook.

Immunity Index: My next novel will be released on May 4, 2021. You can learn more and pre-order it through links here.

Burning Fennel and Usurpation: I’ve just signed a contract with Tor for two more books. That’s the good news. However, the pandemic has affected publishing, including the ability to print books, so these won’t hit the bookstore shelves for a while — but they’re on their way.

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