25 December 2014

Christmas Wreath Sugar Cookies

When I shared a picture of my Christmas cookies on Twitter, several people asked me to share the instructions for making the Christmas wreath slice-and-bake sugar cookies. The process is actually fairly simple, and though it takes longer to prepare the cookies for baking, they actually save time, because you don't have to decorate them once they're baked!

First, start with a batch of sugar cookie dough, like my Vegan Sugar Cookies or the cookie portion from this recipe, which I've also included at the bottom of this post. (You can even try using my Gluten Free Sugar Cookie recipe.)
 
 Divide the dough into thirds, and then divide one third into two portions (one of these portions should be significantly larger than the other)

 Knead in food coloring to tint one large portion of dough green and the smallest portion red. Form the portion of dough that you pulled the small bit from into a long log.

 Roll out the green dough on a piece of waxed paper to a rectangle as long as the log of untinted dough and wide enough to wrap around the circumference.

 Wrap the green dough around the untinted dough, and wrap tightly in the plastic wrap to squeeze the dough together.

 Roll the red-tinted dough into three long, skinny ropes, as long as the dough log. (I always end up tinting more dough red than I actually need. If you do that too, you can set the excess red dough aside to bake later.) Put the red dough ropes onto the outside of the green dough and press slightly to adhere it. (Don't worry about squishing it in too much at this point. You don't want to flatten it.)

 Roll the remaining untinted dough into a large rectangle, and wrap around the green and red dough.

 Your dough log will likely be too thick at this point. (Mine had a diameter twice as big as I wanted.) You'll want to roll the dough a bit to reduce the size, but I found that it was a little awkward to handle the whole thing at once. I cut it into 4 sections and rolled each one separately to make it half as thick and twice as long.


 If you want, you can roll the log in colored sugar for an extra bit of fun. Then, slice into rounds with a sharp knife and bake as directed.


My Mom's Sugar Cookies
1 c. butter
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. almond extract
4 c. flour

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

Add eggs, salt and flavoring. Beat until creamy.

Stir in flour.

Wrap dough with plastic wrap (I prefer to form the dough into a flat disc, rather than a ball, to make it easier to roll out after chilling) and chill in refrigerator for 5-6 hours, or overnight.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roll out dough and cut into circles. Bake on greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets for 8-10 minutes, just until lightly browned on the bottom, but still creamy white on top. (Don't over bake, or the cookies won't be soft!)
 

03 December 2014

Recipe: Creamy Chicken Tortellini Soup



This soup is addictive! I made a big pot of it for my family, and it was gone within minutes, with everyone wishing they had more. Even though our bellies were full, we were all disappointed when the soup was gone. I actually made a second batch and put it in the fridge. (Everyone had soup for breakfast the next morning!) Now, every time I start chopping up carrots, my kids come running to ask "Are you making that delicious soup again??"

Creamy Chicken Tortellini Soup
For 12 large bowls full, you will need:
1/2 lb. carrots, chopped
1/2 c. dried, diced onions
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 Tbsp. chicken bouillon
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1-2 tsp. oregano
1 1/2 c. cooked, diced chicken
2 (10.5oz) cans cream of mushroom (or cream of celery) soup
water
1 lb. fresh cheese tortellini (I used the tri-color variety)

Put chopped carrots and onions in a 5-quart pot, and add just enough water to cover the vegetables. Add chicken bouillon, garlic, oregano, and cayenne pepper. Cook on high 5-10 minutes, just until carrots are slightly tender. (Don't overcook! You don't want mushy carrots by the end of the process.)

Add cream soups, diced chicken, and enough water to fill the pot 2/3 full. Let simmer 10-15 minutes, to allow the flavors to develop.

Stir in pasta, and let cook 5-7 more minutes, until pasta has reached desired tenderness. Serve.



25 November 2014

A Grateful Heart


Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Whether gathering together with family and friends or in solitary contemplation ... eating until there's no room for even one more bite or enjoying a small, simple meal... The day is all about being grateful for what you have.

Trials inevitably come. The waters of life will never run smooth for long. But shooting the rapids can be fun when you're protected with a buoyant raft of gratitude. May you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving, full of love and laughter and a healthy attitude of gratitude!

19 November 2014

Recipe: 1-Hour Garlic Oregano Bread Bites

For special occasion meals, there's nothing better than fresh-baked bread. But I'm too impatient for hours of waiting for the dough to rise. These little rolls take almost no time to make. From start to finish, you can have fresh bread in about an hour. Perfect for your Thanksgiving feast!

Garlic Oregano Bread Bites

For approximately 6 dozen bread bites, you will need:
1 c. + 3 Tbsp. warm water
2 Tbsp. yeast
1/4 c. sugar
1/3 c. oil
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. oregano
2 tsp. garlic powder
3 1/2 c. flour

In a large mixing bowl, combine water, yeast, sugar and oil. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Turn on oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Add salt, oregano, garlic and flour. Mix until a dough is formed and all flour is incorporated.

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. (The dough should be no longer sticky, and you should be able to stretch it without it breaking immediately.)
OR
In your electric mixer, with the dough hook attachment, knead dough until smooth and elastic.

Shape into 1-inch balls and place on a greased cookie sheet. Dough balls should be spaced approximately half an inch apart to allow room for them to rise. Let sit in a warm place (like on top of the preheating oven) for 15 minutes.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, until rolls are golden brown. Serve warm.

14 November 2014

Living with an Expiration Date

After reading THE FAULT IN OUR STARS over a year ago, I promised myself that I would never read another "cancer book." Too difficult. Too personal. Hits a little too close to home. But Julie Murphy's SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY was too intriguing to pass up. The story of a girl who, upon being diagnosed with leukemia, makes (and completes) a revenge bucket list, only to discover that she's not dying after all? That would absolutely be my luck, if I ever tried to do the whole revenge thing. (I do have a bucket list - started when they discovered my brain tumor - but there's nothing even remotely revenge-related on it.)

So I broke my self-imposed rule and read the book. And of course it set me thinking all kinds of thoughts and pondering life. As books like this are bound to do.

The one part of the story that really stuck with me (not an exact quote - I didn't think to mark the passage at the time, and I know I'm not quite strong enough mentally to read back through to find it in the novel) was when Alice makes an off-hand remark about living life with an expiration date. I absolutely understand this sentiment. I feel this way a lot. I can't count the times I've lay in bed at night, staring at the ceiling and wondering if my family will be okay when I go. Most of the time, I know they will be. They're strong. They're amazing. And even when I go, I don't plan on going far. We're a family forever.

Still, that "expiration date" is scary sometimes.

A couple of months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. I didn't turn on the light, because I never turn on the light when I wake in the night. I've never had to. In fact, my nighttime senses have always been sharp enough that I can find my way around in the dark even when I'm not in my own house. And as soon as there's any kind of light shining, my brain decides sleepy-time is over for the night, even if it's only one in the morning.

So turning on my bedside lamp? Yeah, that thought didn't even cross my mind.

Until I took a wrong turn and fell over my writing area in the corner of my room. I landed on my "writer's block" - the pencil holder where I keep my sharpened pencils standing at attention ready for service when I'm writing a new manuscript - and then I and the entire contents of my little writing table went crashing to the floor.

My husband woke up at the sound of the crash and was immediately concerned about the injuries I'd sustained. A valid concern, especially since I had a couple of good-sized gashes in my leg from those broken pencils.

Me? I barely thought about the physical injuries. Instead, I was all shades of nervous about my brain. "I've never lost my way in the dark before," I kept saying. "That doesn't happen to me." And of course, I started imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios. (Let me just say, I'm REALLY good at worst-case scenarios.)

My sweet husband, always the voice of reason, finally convinced me after two days of fretting, that I was getting too worked up over this. "It was dark. You tripped. That happens to people. A lot. Even people without brain tumors. Because people don't see very well in the dark."

I finally conceded that he was right.

Took a deep breath.

And promptly walked straight into a wall. In broad daylight. Because my feet simply decided to turn and take me on a path perpendicular to the one I was trying to walk, and it had nothing to do with being tired or losing my balance or getting distracted. My brain just had a blip where "walk straight" got totally mixed up with "turn left," and even though I could see that I was walking toward the wall instead of down the hall I intended to walk down, I couldn't make my feet move in the direction I wanted them to. Or even stop moving when I saw the wall approaching. (I did put my hands out and stop myself instead of crashing into the wall face-first.)

Yeah. Sometimes my brain does some stupid things.

And sometimes, it's terrifying.

Sometimes, I worry about that "expiration date."


 Because unlike the canister of chocolate milk mix in my pantry, I don't have a "best if used by" date stamped on my backside. I have no idea when my "expiration date" is coming. It could be tomorrow, or next week, or twenty years from now. And while I hope it's twenty or thirty or more years away, that little "what if?" monster keeps whispering "it could be tomorrow."

But isn't that the point? None of us will live forever. That's the nature of life on earth. We all have an expiration date. And none of us knows when that date will be.

So instead of worrying about that day when I might not be there to kiss my kiddos goodnight, I'll give them extra kisses tonight and every night, as long as they'll let me. Instead of worrying about what might happen if I'm not there for my daughter's senior prom, I'll celebrate every Princess Dress-Up moment with her now. And instead of hiding from the camera because I'm not as thin as I once was, or I'm having a bad hair day, or I didn't put on any makeup, I'm going to ham it up and leave as many memories of laughter and fun as I can.

I have no plans to die today. But if I did, I want my family and friends to know that I lived every moment up until the last. And that every moment, for better or worse, was totally worth it.

11 November 2014

So Grateful for Veterans


Happy Veteran's Day! 

I just want to send a giant Thank You to all of the men and women in the Armed Forces, those who are currently serving, and those who have served in the past. The daily freedoms we enjoy are ours because of their selfless service.



Thank You!!

05 November 2014

Recipe: Giant Oatmeal Cookies with Red Chile

A week and a half ago, I had the pleasure of attending the SCBWI Handsprings Writers' Conference here in New Mexico. Writing conferences are one of my favorite things ever, because what could possibly be better than hanging out with a room full of people who all totally get your special brand of crazy? But this conference was extra-special, because I got to help out as part of the planning committee. Specifically, I got to be in charge of the FOOD!

So, you know me. I can't just go to Costco and buy a big tray of cookies. If I'm in charge of the food for an event, I'm going to do my best to find the perfect food for that event. So, since this was a New Mexico writers' conference, of course we had to have something with chiles in it, right? And what goes better with chiles than cookies??

Giant Oatmeal Cookies with Red Chile
For approximately 36 giant cookies, you will need:
2 c. butter or margarine*
2 c. dark brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla
4 c. oats
4 c. whole wheat flour (you can also use all-purpose, but whole wheat tastes better)
1/2 - 2/3 c. diced dried red chiles (these can be as mild or as spicy as you like)
1 pkg. chocolate chips (opt.)
2 c. raisins (opt.)

In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugars. Add eggs, baking soda, salt and vanilla, and beat until creamy. Stir in oats. Add the flour, 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition.Mix in chiles, chocolate chips and raisins, if desired. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Using an ice cream scoop**, portion the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving a few inches of space around each cookie, so they don't run together when they expand. (I fit 8 cookies on my large half-sheet pan. A normal cookie sheet would probably fit 6 cookies.) Bake for 12-13 minutes, until bottom edges are slightly golden brown. Remove from cookie sheet and cool on a wire rack.

*note: You want the butter to be slightly softened to make it cream together with the sugars well, but if butter is too soft, the cookies will end up being super-flat when you bake them. I recommend taking the butter out of the fridge approximately 10-15 minutes before assembling the cookie dough, so it will soften slightly but not too much. If your cookies are coming out flat, consider chilling your dough for an hour or two in the fridge before baking.

**note: You can make regular-sized cookies instead of giant cookies, if so desired. Simply use a regular cookie scoop (or tablespoon) to dish cookie dough and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 9 minutes instead.

31 October 2014

Setting Schedules and Keeping Priorities Straight

A couple of weeks ago, I announced that I would be trimming some of the extras from my blog. Initially, I posted a poll, asking you to weigh in with your opinions. What should I keep? What should I cut? I truly enjoy each of my regular features, and although I knew something had to give, I didn't really want to cut anything from the schedule.

But over the course of the first 48 hours, two things became vibrantly clear.

1. The results of my poll were woefully inconclusive. Every vote I received for cutting a feature was balanced with a vote for keeping that same feature. And every feature had its fans. - Which is exactly how I got into this over-full blog predicament in the first place!

2. I was tempted to ask my family members to go online and cast votes for certain things that I didn't want to lose, and to vote against others that I no longer enjoyed as much as I used to. - Which told me I really didn't need a poll to show me where I need to be focusing my attention. Deep down, in that part of my soul I often forget to listen to, I already knew the answer.

So for the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to set a schedule that will allow me to keep the features I love while still trimming the blog back to manageable levels.


* First and foremost, I want to return to the original focus for this blog: Finding the blessings hidden in all of life's trials.


* I love sharing my recipes with you. There's a reason we celebrate Thanksgiving with a feast far larger than we could possibly eat in one sitting. Delicious food makes us happy and turns our thoughts to the blessings we've enjoyed. So the recipes are staying.
http://vbartles.com/recipes.htm

However, as I keep forgetting to take step-by-step pictures of the recipes as I'm making them, I'm going to simplify the format with only one or two pictures of the finished dish for each recipe (unless there's a step that's simply easier to explain with a photo, in which case, I'll include one).


* Reading is my passion, so of course I love to talk about the books I love. And I want to keep participating in cover reveals for my friends' books.
 
But there are a million book blogs out there dedicated to all the various categories in publishing, and this blog was never intended to be a book blog. So I'm discontinuing the book reviews.

However, many of my reflections and musings stem from the books I read and enjoy, so I will continue to talk about and recommend the books I'm reading, as they relate to the blessings and life-lessons I discuss on this blog. The book discussions will remain. Only the structured, trying-to-be-unbiased-and-strictly-professional book reviews will disappear. Because let's face it: I've never been a strictly-professional kind of girl, and I'd much rather gush about the books that leave me smiling for days or contemplate the lessons in books that tear my heart to shreds.


*Writing is my life, so of course there will be many, many blog posts that center around my life as a writer. Lessons I learn, news I'm excited to share, ideas I'm bubbling over with excitement about.
My blog simply wouldn't be my blog if I wasn't writing about, well, writing. But once again, it was never intended to be a "writer's blog." There are many, many fabulous blogs out there focused on grammar rules, querying, creating life-like characters, and all of the business and craft-related topics that a writer needs to know. This isn't one of those blogs. Instead, I'll talk about the lessons I learn, the friends I'm blessed to meet, and the many ups and downs of life as a writer. Just as I always have.


In the spirit of trying to keep things consistent and manageable, I've set a schedule for my blog posts, so you'll always know when and where you can find the information you're looking for.

* Recipes: 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month
      I'll share one of my latest recipe creations. These may be Crock Pot Gourmet, Vegan/Vegetarian, Gluten-free, Delicious Desserts, or any other category of yumminess that I happen to be concocting in my kitchen. Rest assured, I will continue to post links to the category recipe pages on my website, so you can easily find the recipes that fit your special diets.

* "Life Lessons": 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month
     This will be a short post with a quote or a thought that's inspired me, and the way it's influenced my life for the better.

* Other blog posts: 2nd and 4th Friday of each month
     I'll squeal about the exciting things happening for my friends and family, discuss the books I've read and enjoyed, and share my own writing news and insights.


Coming next week (the 1st Wednesday in November): I will share my recipe for the delicious Oatmeal Red Chile Cookies I made for last weekend's SCBWI NM Handsprings Conference!

13 October 2014

Getting my Priorities in Order (Update!)

I suffer from "As You Wish" syndrome.

When someone I love needs or wants something from me, it's very difficult to say no. I love seeing you smile and knowing that I played a part in putting that smile on your face. But sometimes (often), I say yes to so many people that I end up with far too many commitments and not nearly enough time to accomplish them all. And then I end up disappointing the very people I'm trying to help.

I've blogged about this issue here, here, here, and here (as well as a few - okay, many - other times). And let's be honest, I'll be blogging about it again before long. For someone with "As You Wish" syndrome, learning to say "no" is an ongoing, life-long process.

And I knew I was approaching my breaking point again a few weeks ago, when I talked about Juggling All the Things. But this weekend, I realized that I've actually long-since passed that point. As I sat down to schedule my Saturday, trying to fit in DD#1's band competition, DD#2's volleyball game, DD#3's church youth group mother/daughter activity, DS's bass guitar lessons, movie night for my oldest two daughters and their youth group, a church dance for my son, Pitch Wars critique, writing critiques for my CPs, blog posts, responding to emails about TWELVE STEPS school visits, and trying to fit in a little time to write my own WIP ... Something had to give. At any given time, I had at least three different places to be simultaneously. And since scientists haven't yet perfected cloning, I just couldn't do it all. But I'd promised everyone, and I couldn't let them down! So I worked out a schedule where I could do a little bit of everything, as long as I didn't stop moving for even a moment. It meant being on the move from 6am until 11:30pm or later, but I would do it all. And then, when the craziness was all over, I promised myself I'd learn to say "no."

As I prepared to leave my youngest daughter's mother/daughter activity (where we made these adorable Princess headbands for the little girls at church)
 the leader gave me a hug and said "I know you're extremely busy, but thank you for taking some time to come today." I smiled and nodded, but I was already running late for my next commitment, so I didn't really have time to let her words sink in.

That night, when I met my older daughters' youth group at the movie theater (where they were going to see the new Meet the Mormons movie), their youth leader invited me to stay and watch the movie with them. My daughters and their friends agreed. It would be so fun!!

"Oh, no," I replied. "I can't. I have work to do. I'm going to take my laptop and find someplace to write."

I watched the faces of my two daughters fall as they nodded and accepted the fact that Mom was too busy to simply hang out with them and their friends. - So I scrapped the rest of my To-Do list for the night and spent the next 90 minutes or so sharing a giant bucket of popcorn with the girls.

I'm really good at reminding other people that they shouldn't try to do everything at once. In a recent guest post about social media on the SCBWI MD/DE/WV blog, I wrote: "Don’t try to do it all at once! You know that old adage about eating an elephant one bite at a time? The same applies to building your online presence. If you try to do everything at once, you’ll burn yourself out before you even get started." And it's time I started taking my own advice. So once again, I'm making the commitment to streamline my life.

For the rest of October, I'll be playing catch-up. I'll be completing a web re-design to make my author website and blog more streamlined and easier to navigate, and I'll be setting a posting schedule for myself that will (hopefully) be easier to follow - including letting some of the less-important things go. When I come back in November, I hope to be much more consistent.

And I need your help! I want to return the main focus of this blog to it's original purpose: Finding the blessings within life's daily trials. I'll need to let go of some of the "extras" that have taken over recently, but I don't want to lose them all. So please vote in my poll below to let me know which blog features you love and which you really could do without. (Vote for as many items as you'd like. I'll take all of your input into consideration.)

Thank you so much! I love you all!!

Update: As votes trickled in for my poll, both officially and through comments on my other social media outlets, I realized two things:

#1 - The results were incredibly inconclusive. Every vote I got for discontinuing a feature was offset with a vote from someone else for keeping it. 

#2 - I was sorely tempted to "cheat" by asking friends and family members to come cast their votes for the things that I wanted to win. Which means I already know, in my heart, what needs to stay and what needs to go. So I've closed the poll early, and over the next week or so, I'll be working out a schedule. At the end of October, I will post my new schedule, along with the reasons why I'm keeping (or letting go) the features I've decided upon.

*Giant Squish Hugs* to you all!!

09 October 2014

What if the Princess REALLY Just Wants a Frog?? - (Announcing my Debut Picture Book!!)


Way back in October of 2011, I was actively querying my first YA manuscript when I discovered Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month - where you come up with an idea for a picture book every day in November). The challenge seemed easy enough, and so I eagerly accepted, certain I'd end the month with hundreds of ideas.

And guess what? It wasn't as easy as I expected. By mid-month I was grasping at straws, frantically looking for any source of inspiration. Any little shred of an idea. Just so I wouldn't have to count a big, fat zero for the day.

And in one of those "I have no creativity and what was I even thinking?" moments, I started thinking about my YA novel. KISSING FROGS. And I started playing the "What if?" game.
http://vbartles.com

What if there was a princess who loved frogs more than anything else?

What if she wanted a frog for a pet?

What if she loved frogs so much that she 
couldn't help kissing them goodnight?

What if she wound up with a castle full of princes, all proposing marriage...


But what if you really just want a frog?

 The idea made me giggle so hard that I couldn't wait to start writing. I pulled out my notebook and a special story pencil and wrote my first draft that afternoon. And it was brilliant. Hilarious. Beautiful. Perfect! (Okay, not really. It was a first draft. And first drafts are always messy and awful. But the potential was there!! And I was absolutely in love with my spunky Princess Cassandra!)

After many, many rounds of revision, including a full manuscript critique from Christie Wright Wild, feedback from more than a few online writing workshops, and countless sessions with my fabulous CPs, Amie Rose Rotruck, Laura Shovan and Connie Collins Morgan, who helped me figure out the perfect ending to my story ... I put the thing in a metaphorical desk drawer to wait for the right timing.

Fast forward to November 2013. I was hard at work on final edits for my debut YA novel, TWELVE STEPS, and I had signed with my dream agent, Jessica Sinsheimer. And it was time to figure out what to work on NEXT. (Because, in writing, there always has to be a next project. Waiting for things to happen is much too crazy-making if you don't have something new to focus on.)

"What else are you working on?" Jessica asked. "What would you LIKE to work on next?"

So I told her all about the other MG novels I have stored in various stages of revision on my hard drive. And the YA novels that I've written and abandoned. Or plan to come back to one day. And the shiny new YA contemporary novel that I really wanted to write, but I wasn't sure if anyone would ever love as much as I do. And then I admitted, "And I have this picture book. People seem to like it. I don't know. Maybe we could do something with that someday?"

She loved the shiny, new YA idea and told me to start writing it immediately, and then she asked me to send her the manuscript for THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS. (She loved it!)

Fast forward a few months ...

When the first "I love this book! I plan to take it to our acquisitions meeting next week" email arrived from an editor I'd had at the top of my Dream Editors list for years, I literally fell off my treadmill! (*Note: Reading life-changing emails while working at a treadmill desk can be hazardous to your health.)


It was an excruciatingly-tough decision, but as soon as I spoke to Kristin Rens with Balzer and Bray (Harper Collins), I knew she was the right editor for me. We talked about the story, the illustrations, and all kinds of other things ... and, once again, I found a partner I could be so comfortable with that I forgot my phone phobia! Not only did she (and the whole team) love THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS, but she shared my vision for the book. She pinpointed the few spots in the manuscript that still felt like they weren't quite right, and I loved her ideas!

I've been dancing around for a LONG time, waiting to announce this news, but the day has finally arrived, and I can shout it from the rooftops!!

Coming soon to a bookstore near you!! 
My Debut Picture Book: 
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS!!!!!




So for those of you who are keeping count … Yes, this means my first TWO book sales were BOTH based on the first manuscript I ever wrote. Two books (TWELVE STEPS, and now THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS), both inspired by the novel I counted as a failure. There is no wasted effort in the writing game. As long as you are learning and moving forward, as long as you never give up, you will find success. It may not be what you thought you were striving for, but if you keep working, you’ll probably find something even better.





07 October 2014

Three-Ingredient "Pretend" Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffles

http://i-am-so-grateful.blogspot.com/2014/01/cover-reveal-fine-art-of-pretending-by.html Last weekend, in celebration of Rachel Harris' latest YA novel, THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING, I shared some real-life "pretend boyfriend" moments from my high school diaries. Today, I'm celebrating with an even more delectable Flirt Squad challenge.  
 

For the Love of ChocolateAly is a snackage fiend, bakes often, and stands by her break-up cure of Double Stuf Oreos. Share YOUR favorite recipes!

A challenge to share a delicious chocolate recipe? Yes, please!*


Of course, since we're celebrating THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING, I had to come up with a recipe that fit the theme of "pretending," right? No, I'm not going to try to pass a non-chocolate recipe off as my answer to the Love of Chocolate challenge. (There are plenty of mock chocolate recipes out there, I'm sure, but in my book, pretend chocolate is just plain wrong.) But I was watching Master Chef a couple of weeks ago, and I realized that, as much as I love cooking and baking and making delicious food, I could never win a cooking competition, because I don't do it "right." I'm the queen of shortcuts and cheater dishes, but I'm really good at "Pretending" to be a "Real Chef." (Of course I'm not implying that my cooking is any less real than a professional chef. But I will admit, if I went head-to-head with someone in one of those cooking challenges, I'd be docked all kinds of crazy points for not using the "proper" techniques.)


So today, I present to you my recipe for  
"Pretend" Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffles
With only three ingredients (and an optional fourth ingredient), these melt-in-your-mouth candies take approximately two minutes to make, and they're both gluten-free and vegan.**

For three truffles, you will need:


1 Tbsp. baking cocoa powder
1 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter
1/2 tsp. agave syrup (you can use 1 full tsp. if you prefer sweeter truffles)
(optional: 1 tsp. powdered sugar for dusting finished truffles)




Place cocoa powder and peanut butter in very small bowl or cup. 


 

Microwave 20 seconds to melt the peanut butter. Add agave syrup. Stir to combine all ingredients, until a soft dough forms. 





  
Let cool slightly (about 30 seconds or so). Divide into 3 portions and roll into balls. 


 

Roll each ball in powdered sugar, cocoa powder, or a mix of both. Or simply enjoy as-is.

You can easily double (or triple ... or more) this recipe, if more than three truffles are desired. - These truffles aren't assembled using proper truffle techniques, and they don't even have the "right" ingredients (I think there's supposed to be some complicated process involving heavy cream?), but I wanted truffles one day, and most store-bought truffles contain the oil I'm allergic to, so I simply made my own with ingredients I had on hand. The resulting candy might not be a "real" truffle, but it's no less delicious than the real thing! Sometimes, pretending can be an awfully good thing.



*As you know, creating yummy chocolate desserts to celebrate books I love is kind of a hobby of mine. There were Dark Chocolate Maple Brownies to celebrate Anna Staniszewski's middle grade novel, THE DIRT DIARY ... Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse (as well as an Easy Vegan Chocolate Mousse) to celebrate Rachel Harris' adult contemporary romance, TASTE THE HEAT ... and a Giant Crock Pot Brownie Sundae to celebrate my own debut novel, TWELVE STEPS.

**(Note: These "Pretend" Truffles have REAL peanut butter in them, so if you have peanut allergies, these aren't for you. However, they may work just as well with almond butter, sunflower seed butter or cashew butter.)

04 October 2014

When the Lines Between Fiction and Reality Blur

You've all probably heard me anxiously counting down to the release of Rachel Harris' latest YA novel, THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING. It's no secret that I love Rachel's writing, but this book is, hands-down, my favorite of her novels so far. Because I've totally been there, and I could identify with Aly more than any other fictional character that didn't spring forth from my own brain.

http://i-am-so-grateful.blogspot.com/2014/01/cover-reveal-fine-art-of-pretending-by.htmlThe official blurb:
According to the guys at Fairfield Academy, there are two types of girls: the kind you hook up with, and the kind you're friends with. Seventeen-year-old Alyssa Reed is the second type. And she hates it. With just one year left to change her rank, she devises a plan to become the first type by homecoming, and she sets her sights on the perfect date—Justin Carter, Fairfield Academy’s biggest hottie and most notorious player.

With 57 days until the dance, Aly launches Operation Sex Appeal and sheds her tomboy image. The only thing left is for Justin actually to notice her. Enter best friend Brandon Taylor, the school’s second biggest hottie, and now Aly’s pretend boyfriend. With his help, elevating from “funny friend” to “tempting vixen” is only a matter of time.

But when everything goes according to plan, the inevitable “break up” leaves their friendship in shambles, and Aly and Brandon with feelings they can’t explain. And the fake couple discovers pretending can sometimes cost you the one thing you never expected to want.


Rachel admitted to her street team, the Flirt Squad, that THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING was inspired by an actual conversation she had with a group of guy friends in high school, and she challenged us to write a blog post about a high school memory that would make an excellent book or movie.

As you know, my high school diaries are full of such memories. In fact, my own debut young adult novel, TWELVE STEPS, was inspired by many, many real-life moments in my own high school memories. I've already shared many of those memories with you all, and I guarantee that I'll be sharing more such memories in the future. (And can I say "memories" one more time in this paragraph?)

But this week, all I can think about is how my high school diaries could have easily inspired THIS book. (Is there any wonder that Rachel and I have said for months that our characters could have been friends?)

Like Aly, I was labeled a "commitment" instead of a "casual" in high school.

I had at least 5 different boys describe to me in great detail what our lives would be like one day when we grew up and got married. They knew how many kids we were going to have, where we would live (right down to how many bedrooms our future houses would have), even the kind of jobs we'd probably wind up with. (People always talk about the way girls start planning their wedding days from the time they're old enough to start toddling down a make-believe aisle. From the conversations I've had, I sometimes wonder if boys start dreaming of their future families at a similarly early age.)

Yet none of these boys who planned to marry me when we grew up wanted to try dating me when we were still in high school. (Years after we graduated, several of these boys admitted, "I wanted to ask you out, but I wasn't good enough for you back then.")

So I absolutely understand Aly's frustration with her label. And I totally get her determination to change her status from "automatic friend-zone" to "dating possibility."

I've always kind of rolled my eyes at the "we'll pretend we're a couple to make someone jealous" trope in books and movies. As much as I absolutely adore the plot device (some of my favorite books and movies of all time include the "let's pretend we're in love" story line), I've never really believed that such a thing could happen believably in real life.

Until I started looking back through my high school memories for this challenge.

* There was the guy friend who wanted to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. So I wore his leather jacket (the one he never let anyone touch - not even the aforementioned ex-girlfriend, when they were still dating) and we went for a walk past her house, when we knew she'd be outside to see us holding hands and looking all lovey-dovey. (Theirs was a very on-again-off-again relationship. And whenever he wanted her to take him back, all he had to do was pretend he was inches away from getting together with me.)

* There was the time the guy with a reputation for being the biggest flirt in our class started showing interest in me. And it looked like he might even ask me to the Prom. My best guy friend knew I kind of had a crush on this guy, but he decided that Mr. Flirt wasn't good enough for me. So he told everyone in our class that I was absolutely off-limits, and then he ramped up the friendly hugs, etc. until everyone thought we were a couple. I've gotta admit. I was kind of furious about this one, because I didn't even agree to the "let's pretend we're together" act, and I didn't even find out about it until suddenly every guy I was even slightly interested in stopped talking to me. (Not to mention the trouble it caused when his girlfriend found out everyone in school thought he broke up with her for me.)

* There was the time a guy at work was bugging me. So my guy friend offered to stop by when I was at work and pretend to be my boyfriend for a few days, until the co-worker got the hint and backed off. We spent hours planning the choreography. And the conversations we'd have. (How cutesy did the pet names have to be? How touchy-feely did we have to get to really sell the fiction? Of course, there would have to be a kiss or two ... but how passionate? Would a kiss on the cheek be enough? A peck on the lips? Or a full-blown make-out session right there in public?)

In the end, we didn't actually go through with it. Because I started worrying about what his girlfriend (!!! Yes, my friend had a girlfriend at the time - most of my guy friends had girlfriends, and surprisingly, their girlfriends never really liked me much - but she was out of town, so maybe we could have gotten away with it) ... I worried about what his girlfriend might say if she found out about our little charade when she got back. My friend kept assuring me that his girlfriend would be totally okay with it. She knew there wasn't anything REALLY going on with us, and she'd understand the need to get this creepy co-worker off my back.

But, yeah, my friend wasn't a teenage girl. And even though his girlfriend was extremely secure in their relationship, I can assure you, there's no way she would have been okay with it.

* And there was the first time a boy shattered my heart. I was devastated, but determined not to let the boy know he'd hurt me. So one of my dad's college students offered to show up at a state speech and debate tournament to flirt with me shamelessly in front of the boy. It probably would have worked too ... except this college guy got his signals crossed, and he came over to do his massive flirting act in front of the wrong boy. The boy I was trying to make jealous wasn't even around, but I couldn't say anything to the college guy, because then everyone would know his flirting was just an act!

None of my "let's pretend we're together" moments led to the real romance it always leads to in fiction. There were a couple of almosts ... Like the guy who asked me to go to a dance with him to show his ex-girlfriend he wasn't pining away for her (even though he totally was). We went out on several other dates after that, and we had a lot of fun together, but he kept thinking about the ex, and I couldn't actually imagine kissing him, so it fizzled before it really began. ... Or there was the guy who flirted with me in class, to make the guy I'd had a crush on forever jealous. (Crush guy didn't notice, and before long I'd developed a crush on flirt guy, who admitted he didn't think of me "that way.") ... Or the guy who was just a friend, but who everyone in our social circle thought should be my boyfriend. Every time they started pressuring us to get together, we'd go out on a few dates to get them off our backs, and then go back to being just friends again. (Ironically, this is the only boy I ever went out with more than once or twice. We had 2-3 dates per year all through high school. And there was never any real chemistry between us, but he was the most fun fake boyfriend ever.)

Even though it didn't work out in real life like it does in fiction, the "pretend boyfriend" trope was a staple of my high school life. Is it any wonder I love the plot device in books? And movies? And TV shows?



http://i-am-so-grateful.blogspot.com/search/label/Flirt%20Squad


29 September 2014

Numbers Don't Matter. YOU Matter.

I have been so worried and caught up in the numbers game lately. I absolutely cringe every time someone asks me "How is your book doing? How many copies have you sold so far?" (Seriously, guys. Don't ask things like this. I don't ask you how much money you made with your last paycheck.) Every time someone asks this question, I feel like I need to defend my worth. Like I'm only valuable if I'm doing BETTER than everyone else. (By the way, I'm fine. I've sold more copies of my book than some have and less than others. Just like every other author on the planet, throughout the entire history of books.)

This weekend, I hit a severe low, however, as I started letting the numbers game get to me. What if "fine" isn't good enough? What if people stop seeing me as worthwhile because I'm not THE BEST? And how do I even measure that status? I've had overwhelmingly-positive reviews, and I get emails and private messages regularly from readers who say they were touched by my book. Is that more or less important than hitting #1 on a Bestseller List?

And then, Saturday night, I went to the General Women's Broadcast of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This talk, by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (2nd counselor in the first presidency of the church) was exactly what I needed to hear:


The entire talk is worth watching. (You can find the full talk here.) I especially needed to hear the part (right before the clip shown above) where he said, "God knows of your successes. Though they may seem small to you." - Because I matter to Him. Whether I've sold 1 book or 1 million, that's the only measurement that really matters. 

 And you matter too. 
Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise!

26 September 2014

On Juggling All the Things...

I admit that once again I've been MIA recently. And it feels like I'm apologizing for that a lot more often than I should. So once again, I'm stepping back to take stock of my very full plate. And maybe let something go. Because I'm really good at balancing all the things ... usually. But lately, I'm feeling a little too unsteady in this balancing act, and I'd hate to have it all come crashing down around me.

So please be patient with me. And I'll be back soon, ready to tackle the (more streamlined) world!

In the meantime ... I unveiled my redesigned website today, and I'm kind of ridiculously in love. (My amazing in-house artist, aka my awesome husband, illustrated the home page!)

I'm still working on some of the pages, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you think of the new look?

http://vbartles.com

02 September 2014

Don't Give Up! - Pitch Wars Lesson #2


 In less than an hour, Brenda Drake will post the list of Pitch Wars mentor teams. As always, there were far more many amazing entries than there were available mentee slots. I personally had six entries that I wanted to choose for my team, and eight more that I knew I wasn't the right mentor for, but I still want to read when they hit bookstore shelves one day. And of the entries that didn't catch my attention, several others were hotly-discussed behind the scenes among other mentors.

The problem is, each mentor could only choose one mentee and one alternate. Which means only a handful of these amazing entries could be chosen. And I know I've said it before, but just in case you missed it the first hundred times or so, I'll say it again: You guys have talent!

Some of you are so close that I seriously expect to read your "I have an agent!" and "I have a book deal!" posts very soon. Others aren't quite there yet, but you're getting there, and as long as you keep moving forward, it will happen for you too. I didn't see a single entry where I would tell the author to give up. Please don't give up!!

Trust me, I know what it's like to pin your hopes on a contest, and I know how much it hurts when you don't make it in. I've been there. More than once. In fact, two years ago, I didn't make it in to Pitch Wars, and I nearly gave up on myself and my writing. I did give up on the manuscript I was working on at the time. But then I wrote something new. And if you've read my own "How My Book Became a Book" story, you know that new manuscript grew up to be my debut novel, TWELVE STEPS.
http://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Steps-Veronica-Bartles-ebook/dp/B00KH8VEZU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404486954&sr=8-1&keywords=twelve+steps

But there's more to the story.

Back when I was querying that first manuscript, I kept getting amazing personalized rejections. "I love the characters! I love the voice! The plot and pacing are perfect! But it's not for me." That's why I entered Pitch Wars in the first place. I needed to know what, exactly, was holding these agents back. What was it about my story that didn't work? So I picked my mentors very carefully. Not only did I look for mentors who wanted contemporary YA manuscripts, but those who promised feedback to everyone who applied to them. If I didn't get in, I reasoned, at least they'd tell me why.

Except it didn't work out that way.

I got an email from one of the three mentors I applied to, saying that she'd love to give me some feedback if I was interested. But even though I responded with a resounding "Yes, please!!" I never heard from her again. And I didn't get emails from the other two mentors at all. This was especially confusing, because I would talk to them from time to time on twitter, and all three made comments like, "You were so close! But I hope my feedback at least helped a little bit." (Feedback? What feedback??) I decided they must have tweeted some vague tips on the #PitchWars hashtag with my manuscript in mind, so I scoured the feed. I looked for any and all tips that might pertain to my manuscript in any way. And I applied that advice to TWELVE STEPS. Which went on to receive not one, but two offers of publication when I entered it into a couple of pitch contests the following spring.

But here's the part I didn't know until this week: Those mentors who never bothered to send me feedback? Yeah, they totally did. The emails must have disappeared somewhere in cyberspace, but yeah, those emails totally exist. How do I know? Well, when I mentioned in the Pitch Wars mentor private forum that I never received feedback that first year, one of the mentors I'd applied to went back into her "sent mail" archives and pulled up her notes. And two years late, I got to read her feedback on that first manuscript.

The best part?? Her feedback totally matched what I'd already figured out from scouring the tips on the hashtag. And because I didn't get the hand-holding I thought I needed more than anything else, I learned to trust my own gut. I learned to listen to that little voice that told me something wasn't quite right. And I learned to look for feedback on my own writing in the tips and critiques I saw given to others. In so many ways, I am who I am because I entered Pitch Wars and "lost."

Win or lose, you're stronger when you keep going.

19 August 2014

Crock Pot Gourmet Recipe: 3-Ingredient, Gluten-Free Peach Cobbler

This time of year, I prefer a lighter, mostly vegetarian diet (meat and heavy starches weigh me down in the hotter months, and I just feel sluggish), but my family misses the comfort foods and treats we often enjoy in the winter. So when my friend gave me a big batch of slightly-squishy peaches, I decided to try a lighter twist on peach cobbler. With only 3 ingredients in the Crock Pot, it's super-simple to put together, and just as delicious as "the real thing!"

For a batch that fills a 5-quart Crock Pot, you will need:
* 12-16 corn tortillas (3-4 per layer)
* approximately 2 dozen peaches, pitted and sliced (perfect use for the peaches that are starting to get over-ripe, or you could probably use canned peaches, drained)
* 1/2 to 1 c. brown sugar, divided (if using canned peaches, you may want to use even less sugar)

Spray crock with non-stick cooking oil. Spread 1/4 of the sliced peaches in a layer on the bottom of the Crock Pot. Top with 3-4 tortillas. (I prefer to use 3 tortillas. If you position them like in the picture below, you can tear the middle one in half to cover the outside edges of the layer, avoiding a 4-way overlap, and a very thick layer of tortilla, in the center of the dish.)
Sprinkle with 1/4 of the brown sugar (I used approximately 3/4 c. total, but you can use more or less depending upon how sweet your peaches are, and how sweet you want the final cobbler to be).

Repeat layers 4 times, ending with a sprinkling of brown sugar.

Cook on low for 5-6 hours (or overnight if you want a delicious breakfast to wake up to!)

Serve warm or cold, either by itself, or with your favorite whipped cream / plain yogurt / ice cream.

This recipe is naturally gluten-free and vegan!