Sunday, May 28, 2017

Editing 101: Sometimes Brief Is Too Brief

So often, people send me things saying "I'd like this to be shorter, if possible."

For the most part, I have no problems with that. Many of the authors I work with spend a lot of time putting a lot more words onto the page than they really need. It's often easy to cut out a certain amount of text.

Barring any issues with the author's style preferences, shaving

"Then, he moved to the door and leaned against it, with an air of disgust." 

down to

"Disgusted, he moved to lean against the doorframe." 

is often pretty easy, after all.

And, taking it a bit further, I have to admit that I absolutely love condensing entire books down to the text on the back cover. (I used to work at a job where we had to boil entire operas down to three or four words. That was challenging, but really fun.)

What I'm trying to say is that I completely understand the desire (and need, at times) to strip text down to its components. However, if you go too far it can have some pretty ridiculous - and indecipherable - consequences.

Take, for instance, this set of words found on the packaging for some toothpaste:

Maybe it's just me, but I kind of expect that the listing on a package will be telling me what the product is good for. My expectation is that it will either give me a list of the things the product will do or the things that the product will get rid of. Does that sound right to you?

So, looking at the list, above, and seeing that "cavities" are the first item, I'd assume that this is a list of the things that this toothpaste is going to get rid of:
  • cavities
  • plaque
  • gingivitis
  • enamel
  • tartar
  • breath
  • whitens
Wait... wait... wait...

The first three make sense, but why do we want a toothpaste that gets rid of enamel?

So maybe that line in the middle means that we've switched gears and the rest of the list is good stuff? But what about "tartar"? We obviously don't want more of that. "Breath" has me confused here, too. Is the toothpaste going to get rid of my breath? Is it going to make it easier to breathe? What does that mean?

But even breath (because it's a noun) makes more sense in this list than the verb "whitens." After all, you can't add a "whitens" to something. You certainly can't remove your "whitens" from your teeth.

The more frustrated I became as I looked at this packaging, the more I thought "I must be missing something," so - in the interest of full disclosure - here is a photo of the entire panel:

Okay. So the bottom line does clarify what we're doing with the plaque and tartar. But if we apply the "prevent" idea to the first set ("Prevents cavities, plaque, and gingivitis"), then what do we do with the second set? Do we really want to say that this "Fights enamel, tartar, breath, and whitens"? (And, again, how would one "fight whitens" anyway?)

Luckily, because this was a mini tube from the dentist - and because I tend to keep those for when I'm travelling - I dug around in my stash and found an older box of the same brand.

Thankfully, the older box had been printed before someone at Colgate had decided to eliminate a whole bunch of the helpful words. It yielded much more information:

Remarkably, in the exact same amount of space (and even after giving more space to the logos), we're presented with actual phrases and clauses that make sense.

Okay, if you're paying close attention, you'll see that the older version does not mention enamel at all. But - is it really worse to not mention it? Or is it worse to insinuate that the toothpaste removes it along with the tartar and plaque?

I don't know about you, but I'm thinking that this was one situation where a few too many words were removed for the "author's" own good.

(I won't lie. There's a part of me that is really looking forward to my next trip to the dentist, just so I can see what the latest version of the packaging looks like.)  

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sandwich Prep - The Long Game

You know how I usually try to post a photo of the ingredients before I use them in a recipe? Well, here's one that is going to take a little more than just some slicing or blending to be ready to go.

Not actually the plants involved in this story - but two Super Chilis, which are both pretty and pretty spicy.
Let me explain.

The Friends' School in the Twin Cities has a massive plant sale fund raiser every spring (typically Mother's Day weekend). The plants are often smaller than what you'd get at a landscape center, which also means that they're typically a lot less expensive.

This means that there are often a lot of people at the sale, and you kind of need to bring your own carrying containers, because once you leave the shopping cart behind you've got to figure out how to carry your purchases multiple blocks to your car.

This year, I got smart and took three stacking "milk crates," which I stacked in my cart and filled with plants, then carried out to my car. It worked great. And - since I shopped almost entirely off of my planned plant planting list, I spent about $80 and walked away with something like 65 plants.

Four of which are Brandywine tomatoes, which were so small that they were discounted even beyond the regularly low price.
I knew I had a picture of them!
It took me a while to get all of the plants into the ground. Between other things I needed to do and keeping an eye on the weather (planting anything in Minnesota before Memorial Day can be a crap shoot), I finally got everything into the ground about a week later.

The last time I tried to grow tomatoes, they did fairly well, but about when they were ready to eat the squirrels got to them first. So this year the plants - which should be fully grown by the end of July - are going to grow behind some chicken wire, which I finally got put up on a dry day this week.
Little tiny plants inside the cylinder of chicken wire - or, as the packaging called it, "Poultry Netting."
Looking at the largest of the four plants, I have to admit that it's hard to imagine I'll have anything to eat this summer.
Yep. At about three inches tall, that one is the tallest.
I just have to keep watering and hoping, and - if all goes well - some time late this summer I'll be showing you the ingredient stack that will yield this:

In 2015, I had four tomatoes, one which became fried egg and tomato on toast. I'm salivating just thinking about it.
Fingers crossed.

While we wait for the tomatoes to reach fruition, do you have anything you'd like to see me try out in the kitchen for you? Let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Drawing an Editorial Map

As an editor, I spend a lot of time trying to coach authors down the paths I think they should take. I also try to nudge them away from things that I just don't think are working.

I was trying to figure out a nice way to explain this to someone I was working with, recently. Sometimes that's much more difficult than others.

Then, as I was out walking the dog that evening, I came across this driveway, and realized that maybe working with authors is easier than working with some drivers - or maybe contractors - I'm not entirely certain what prompted this.

Luckily, I've never had to resort to neon orange spray paint with my authors.

But it's good to know that it might be an option sometime if I really need it.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Faux Tofu Egg Salad

It's come to my attention that I tend to be a bit... well... snarky when it comes to what I call the "non-food foods." You know what I mean, right? The veggie burger that "tastes just like hamburger" or the tofu wrap that is "just like eating chicken."

This can get a bit dicey, especially when you have friends (and relatives) who are vegetarian, or cook vegan, or just - for who knows what reason - prefer to eat non-food from time to time.

One of those people in my life happens to be Betty over at Sweet Betty's Blog, and she recently made (and posted about) a Tofu "Egg" Salad (the recipe is there, so I'm not copying it here). I read through the recipe and decided to try it. After all, it seemed to be fairly easy and not too dangerous. And, based on her post, it was pretty, too:

Nice, right? All colorful and healthy looking - and still looking like egg salad.

I was reading the instructions, and I was kind of excited to see the garlic powder and hot sauce. Typically, I put hot pickle relish in my egg salad, so I was glad to see that there were going to be some other spices.

I got to the end and thought. "Okay. I can do that!" 

I'm going to cut to the chase: it was tasty. And mine also looked really good when I was done mixing it all:

Okay. So what was my process?

Well, I started with the ingredients. I realized, though, that I don't have any vegan mayonnaise, so I decided to opt for regular - since I was going into this more for the experience than for the exact recipe.

I put that into the bowl and also measured out my yellow mustard (which I don't usually do), as well as all of the other ingredients.

Can you see all of the lumps that kinda look like egg? That's where the "faux" in my "faux tofu" comes in:

I figured that, since it's okay for people to use tofu to substitute for hard boiled eggs, it was okay to go the other way, too, right?

And, well, if I'm being honest, here's my entire ingredient pile:

I tend to keep a couple of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge. So that I don't accidentally try to crack one into a bowl of batter, I mark them (in this case, with Xs). I'm not really sure what people would think if they saw them in the fridge...
Yes. I know that some readers might say that this completely negated my attempt at cooking with tofu. And, yes, you may have a point. But - on the other hand - it was the first time I've used garlic powder, lemon juice, and hot sauce in my egg salad. So... points for trying something new. Right?

In the interest of full disclosure, I also didn't have pretty, bright veggies to eat with this. I did have some Tostitos Scoops, though:

I also, sadly, don't have a brightly light work station at which to enjoy my lunch. When I moved it down to my desk to eat, it looked more like this:

Which, honestly, looks depressing enough that it kind of makes me wish I'd started with the tofu and veggies.

But only kind of.

Sorry, Betty. I tried.

Have a recipe you'd like to see made, but don't want to be your own guinea pig? Let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Yes. Your Translator Needs an Editor. (And vice-versa)

I am a native English speaker. My "mother tongue" is American English - though I do have some Canadian/British English influences.

The town I grew up in had some German speakers in it, so I picked up some of that along the way. (For instance, I know how to say "turn off the light" and "very hot.") I studied French in college and lived in Paris for a year. So I am relatively comfortable in basic French - but my comprehension is better in Paris than Montreal.

In most other languages, I simply speak food. I can read menus in Italian and Spanish. I can watch a telenovela and guess at the plot - but I can't pretend to know what the actors are saying.

What does all of this have to do with editing? It points out that knowledge of a language isn't the same as full comprehension of the intricacies of that language.
It's a little like telling someone "That is the out way" instead of "That's the exit." Technically, the former isn't wrong, but it also isn't truly right.

I ran into this recently when I was in South America. We found very quickly that - for the most part - you don't throw any paper into the toilets. There are signs posted almost everywhere (at least everywhere that tourists might go) that depict through graphics what you are and aren't supposed to do. Often, these are accompanied by a message in English:

Please do not throw paper into the toilet.

Pretty self explanatory, right? But... well... not everyone understands the use of proper prepositions - and "into" can be kind of confusing - even for native speakers. 

We often saw the also-correct: 

Do not throw paper in the toilet.

We saw the not-quite-correct:

Do not throw paper in to the toilet.

And, once, we saw my favorite warning:

Do not throw paper to the toilet.

Of course, being an editor who was frequently running on little sleep, I really assumed that there should have been an explanation for that last one, such as "Do not throw paper to the toilet, because it has no hands and cannot catch." 

Did it make it impossible for us to understand? No. And, honestly, we could figure out all of those signs. Nothing was so far gone that it left us not knowing what to do or not do. Why? Because each of the translators knew the mechanics of the English language.

But, as an editor, my job is to make sure what I'm working on is not just mechanically correct - it also needs to be grammatically and understandably correct to a native speaker. It needs to feel right to its readers, and not be filled with rough edges that readers have to try to sand off while reading. 

(And, yes, the same can be said for American English and British English - or any different dialects of the same language.)

As with most other processes involved in writing a manuscript, there aren't shortcuts in this. If you want your book to reach its full potential, you need to go through each of the hoops - one round for the translation and (at least) one more to make sure that the translation is not only mechanically correct. (And each of those rounds should be done by a person specializing in that process. A translator for the translation. An editor for the edit(s).)

If you're ever not sure it's worth it, just remember all of those people who may be trying to play catch with a toilet.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Boston Cream Pie, part two (also part final ... for now)

So, last week we looked at the process for making a pastry cream - ending up with something that I still feel was a little too fluffy/thin to be a really good Boston Cream Pie filling. But - following recipes as I do (at least the first time through) - I made the cream and got ready to move forward with the pie.

Again, in case you've forgotten, I was working with the first Boston Cream Pie recipe I was able to find in my gazillion cookbooks:
(We need to thank Beth Z. for this one landing on my shelf.)
You'll notice, if you look closely, that this recipe is broken into two parts: The Cake and The Glaze. (This is on top of the fact that one of the ingredients is literally listed as "Filling.")

The "Latin" version sounds... interesting... Possibly, if you're having a Cinco de Mayo party this weekend, you could try it and let me know how it goes.
Though "Boston Latin" sounds like a prep school.
I started out with what I needed for the cake:

If you noticed that there are two different kinds of extract in that photo, it's because one is vanilla and the other is almond.
NOTE: "Bourbon" vanilla does NOT include any bourbon (though most of the time there is some alcohol in it). This simply indicates that it is from the Ile Bourbon.
Two things struck me as I began working on the cake:

  1. It only makes ONE 9-inch cake layer.
  2. The recipe doesn't say whether or not to soften the butter before starting.
I opted to go with the recipe and not soften the butter, which, I'll admit, had me looking into my bowl with some trepidation.

I mean... Who wants butter chunks in a cake? In a croissant, maybe. In a puff pastry, probably. In a cake? Hmm...

Luckily, adding in eggs, oil, vanilla, and almond, made a huge difference. (They also made the kitchen smell pretty amazing.)
This photo seems to be sideways.

In basic cake technique, the flour mixture and the milk went in alternately.

And we ended up with cake batter, which went into the prepared (greased and floured) cake pan.

While that was in the oven, I set about making the chocolate glaze, since the recipe talks about it needing to cool before being used.

If you come to visit, you'll probably find at least one bottle or jar somewhere in the kitchen or pantry that is upside down, as I try to coax out the last little bit of whatever it is.
I have to admit that I've always been kind of amazed at how different liquids rise and fall when mixed - and how some blend easier than others. This resulted in me having some fun with the cream and corn syrup.
Immediately before this photo was taken, you could see a huge hole in the middle of the cream where the corn syrup had taken up residency. I swear.
There are some things that are really kind of fun to do in the kitchen. Pouring chocolate chips into hot milk (and corn syrup) and watching chemistry happen is one of them.

In almost no time, this:

Turns into this:
Those are not - I repeat not - finger marks on the back of my spatula. I would never put my fingers into a hot pan of chocolatey goodness. (I may, however, run my fingers across the back of a slightly cooler spatula. But that isn't what those marks are from. I promise.)
Meanwhile, in the oven, the cake batter had turned into... well... cake. (You were expecting, maybe, cinnamon-sugar elephant ears?)

After an appropriate cooling period, I flipped the cake out of the pan. Or at least most of it. Honestly. I have NOT been having good luck with things that need to be flipped out of pans, lately.

So there we have our one cake layer. Of course, since I made that pastry cream last week, we all know that we need to have something to fill, right? Time to get out the long serrated knife.

I know that there are professionals who do this all the time. I, however, am not one of them. So I was doing this all by feel, hoping to get the tiers to be fairly equal - and fairly level. 

When my cuts actually met up back at the start, I was pretty excited. Peeling the two apart, though, I became very happy that pastry cream and chocolate glaze would be helping me level it all out.

This, of course, meant it was time to start the assembly of the pie-cake (cake-pie?). First step: Spread the fluffy pastry cream all over the bottom half of the cake.

I had been second-guessing the consistency ever since I made it. And, when I spread it on the cake I got even more concerned. It's very fluffy - it felt a little like a whipped cream frosting when I was working with it. I mean... it tasted okay, but it lost a lot of its appeal when it went from being custard to being cream.

Nevertheless, I moved forward and placed the remaining tier on, then poured/spooned/spatula-ed the glaze on top.

As you can see, the glaze was actually a bit thicker by the time it went onto the cake. It stayed in place pretty well, consequently.

I actually had to coax it a little to get it to go over the edges, instead of just being a 1/4-inch thick disk of chocolate on the top of the cake. 
If you look closely (or even if you just glance, really), you can see that the cream didn't want to stay in place, and oozed out of the sides a bit.
Letting it "set" for a bit, we cut into it a few hours later.
It seemed easier to show the cake, instead of the slices.
If you look closely, you can see that there are some crumbs on the plate - and that the cream is kind of going everywhere. That's pretty much what it was like to eat it, too: it was a little dry/crumby, and the cream wanted to go everywhere as you tried to fork through it (especially because the thick chocolate topping made cutting through it a bit more difficult than expected).

Did it taste good? Yes. The almond/vanilla of the cake worked really well, though the cream could have used a bit more of the custard's sweetness.

Did it survive in the fridge? Not too well. Even fully covered, the cake layers dried out pretty quickly in the fridge, with the chocolate layer getting progressively more difficult to get through.

Will I make Boston Cream Pie again in the future? Sure. Why not? (And I've already found a recipe in another cook book that might be a bit more what I was originally hoping for.) Just give us a few weeks to recover from the last one, first.

This set of recipes became my blog post because someone tossed the idea to me. If you've got a recipe you want someone to try for one reason or another (to work out the kinks or to see if it's worth your time), let me know!