28 May 2013

Book Review: THE PAPER HOUSE by Lois Peterson

THE PAPER HOUSE by Lois Peterson is a heartwrenching true-to-life middle grade story, full of rich images and description that pulls you right into the world of the novel.

27 May 2013

Overcoming the Six Destructive Ds

Yesterday, in church, our Bishop spoke about being prepared to face the storms of life, when they inevitably hit. He based much of his message on a talk by Elder Kevin W. Pearson in the April 2009 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon church). And as often happens, I found myself applying the message of this talk to my own life. (Isn't that what we're supposed to do?)

Elder Pearson talked about "Six Destructive Ds" that can harm our spirits, if we allow them to take over our hearts.

1. Doubt: "Doubt is a negative emotion related to fear. It comes from a lack of confidence in one’s self or abilities. It is inconsistent with our divine identity as children of God." - We are children of God!! We have so much potential, and we should not allow ourselves to wallow in fear and doubt. Instead, we should focus on our great gifts and immense potential, striving to turn each failure and setback into a learning experience, from which we can grow. Recently, as I've watched The Writer's Voice competition play out... as so many of my fellow writers have received multiple requests for their entries, and mine sat for the first day of the agent round without a single request, I began to play that devastating "what if" game. What if I'm only fooling myself? What if I don't have what it takes to be a writer? What if "Cupid" only chose me for her team because she felt sorry for me? - Being aware of my weaknesses is a good thing. It's important for me to be able to see where I can improve, and how I can make myself better. But this kind of "what if" thinking doesn't make me a better writer. It won't move me along the path to greater things. And luckily, I have some amazing friends and critique partners who are really good at slapping me silly when I start playing "what if."

2. Discouragement: "Doubt leads to discouragement.‍ Discouragement comes from missed expectations. Chronic discouragement leads to lower expectations, decreased effort, weakened desire, and greater difficulty feeling and following the Spirit." - When we allow ourselves to wallow in self-doubt, it doesn't take long before we start wondering if it's even worth it to try. Because if I'm only fooling myself and don't have what it takes to be a writer, then writing will only lead to one disappointment after another, right?

3. Distraction: "Discouragement leads to distraction,‍ a lack of focus." - As soon as I start travelling down that path of doubt and discouragement, I discover that I truly can't write. I pull out the video games to waste time. My to-do list of chores grows... I even find myself preferring to wash the dishes (a chore I absolutely hate) than sitting and staring at a blank page. Anything to distract myself from the negative thoughts swirling around in my brain. But the thing is, all of the distractions in the world won't eliminate the doubt and discouragement.

4. Lack of Diligence: "Distraction leads to a lack of diligence,‍ a reduced commitment to remain true and faithful and to carry on through despite hardship and disappointment." - The antidote for fear is moving forward with faith. I'll never write anything while playing mind-numbing video games. I need to pick up my story pencils and notebooks and start letting the words pour out of me. And yes, many of the scribbled words will be crap. They'll take weeks and months' worth of revising before they're ready for the world to see. But I can't revise a blank sheet of paper. I'll never get anywhere if I don't take those important first steps.

5. Disobedience: "If not reversed, this path ultimately leads to disobedience,‍ which undermines the very basis of faith." - In every aspect of life, there are rules and guidelines to follow for success. And though it's sometimes tempting, when I start following the destructive path of Doubt, Discouragement, Distraction and lack of Diligence, to adopt a "you can't tell me what to do" attitude, it simply won't help me to start sending emails to tell off every agent that's ever rejected me.

6. Disbelief: "So often the result is disbelief, the conscious or unconscious refusal to believe." - Luckily, I've never reached this stage. But I've seen others reach it. And it's nearly impossible to come back from. Because once you start refusing to believe in the good parts, the negative completely takes control over your life.

Elder Pearson observed: "Disappointment is an inevitable part of life, but it need not lead to doubt, discouragement, distraction, or lack of diligence." And when I look back on my own journey, I can trace every good and amazing thing that's ever happened to me (in every aspect of life, not just in my writing) directly back to a major disappointment. Often, I build up my expectations for one outcome, determined that "I'll be happy if..." only to discover that the Lord has other plans for me. And you know what? His plan is always better than mine. Because He sees the whole picture, and I'm only focused on a little piece of the puzzle.

So I went into The Writer's Voice with the expectation and hope that I'd get at least 3 requests... which would mean I could send my full manuscript to each requesting agent. I got one official request and one ninja request, which means I'll send the partial manuscript instead. BUT those requests were from JOHN RUDOLPH (Dystel & Goderich Literary Management) and LAURA BRADFORD (Bradford Literary Agency)... and I'm beyond thrilled to have the chance to send my pages to these amazing agents! Perhaps, once again, a small dose of Disappointment is the key to something better than I dared to imagine.

Only time will tell.

23 May 2013

Crock Pot Gourmet: Cinnamon Rolls

It's getting to be summer time here in New Mexico, and I don't like turning on the oven (& heating up the house) any more than absolutely necessary, so I try to come up with alternatives for our favorite baked goods when warm weather hits. But sometimes, only the real thing will do, so when my daughter asked for Cinnamon Rolls for breakfast today, I thought I'd experiment a bit to see if I could bake them in my crock pot instead. (The answer is yes, I could!)
(If desired, you can finish these Cinnamon Rolls with your favorite glaze or cream cheese frosting, but I prefer my rolls unfrosted, because I don't care for massive amounts of sugar in the morning.)
First, I made a batch of my super-delicious and easy Cinnamon Roll Dough and divided it in half.
A scale makes it easy to divide dough exactly in half, but you can eyeball it if you don't have a scale. (Each half batch of dough weighed about 1 lb. 14 oz.) - You can also cut the ingredients for the recipe in half, if you're only making one batch of cinnamon rolls.

For one batch of Crock Pot Cinnamon Rolls, you will need:
2 Tbsp. butter, softened (for vegan diets, use margarine instead)
1/4 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
(optional): raisins, nuts, chocolate chips, craisins... whatever you like in your cinnamon rolls!

Sprinkle flour on clean, dry table.

Roll the dough ball in the flour to coat.

Roll out the dough into a large oval, about 1 cm thick.

(approximately 1/4 inch)

If you keep your butter in the fridge, like I do, you'll want to soften it slightly. Microwave on high (in a GLASS bowl or cup - plastic will melt) for 5-15 seconds.
You don't want to let it melt, just soften it until it spreads easily.

Spread butter on the dough. (For a lower-fat version, simply spray with a thin layer of non-stick cooking spray instead of spreading butter or margarine.)

In a small bowl, mix cinnamon and sugar together.

Sprinkle over dough, leaving about 1/2 inch on one long edge free of sugar.

If desired, sprinkle with a handful or two of raisins (or your favorite fillings).

Roll into a long cylinder, starting on edge opposite the unsugared edge.

Press slightly to seal dough together. Place, seam-side down on cutting surface.

Slice roll at approximately 1-inch intervals.

To prepare your crock pot for baking, roll a long piece of foil into a snake, and coil loosely in the bottom of your Crock Pot, shaping it to fill the space as fully as possible. Remove from crock.
Cut another piece of foil, slightly larger than your Crock Pot. Place the foil sheet over the top of Crock Pot, and place foil spiral on top of it.

Press down into the crock pot, to fill the bottom of the crock.
Fold edges in, around the spiral.

Flip foil disc over, so smooth side is facing up. 

Spray with non-stick cooking spray.

Arrange cinnamon rolls on foil.

Cook on High for about 2 or 2 1/2 hours.
Make sure to keep lid of Crock Pot slightly askew, so steam can escape, or you'll have a sticky, doughy mess when you're done.

Because the Crock Pot heats more slowly and gently than the oven, you don't need to let the rolls rise before turning on the Crock Pot. Simply put them in and turn it on. They plump up beautifully!

For comparison, this time, I made a second batch of rolls with the other half of the dough, baked in the oven (on a greased cookie sheet at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes). The texture of the finished rolls was nearly identical... although I did get distracted right at the end of the cooking time for the Crock Pot batch and forgot to turn it off. I ended up with slightly burnt edges on the Crock Pot Cinnamon Rolls, but they were still delicious! I'll definitely make these again!

Update: A word of caution!! Make sure to take the cinnamon rolls OUT of the Crock Pot as soon as they are finished baking. For the cakes I've made, I've generally turned off the Crock Pot and let the cake cool in the crock before removing it, but because the cinnamon rolls are bread-based, they have less moisture than a cake to begin with. After baking my first batch, I left them in the Crock Pot to keep warm until my husband came home from work. And by the time he came home, about an hour and a half later, the rolls had dried out considerably. They were still tasty, but they were no longer fluffy and soft, as cinnamon rolls should be. It's and easily-solved problem. Simply remove the rolls to cool on a wire rack, or serve immediately while warm.

Of course, if you forget and leave the rolls in the Crock Pot until they're all dried out, like I did with half of the batch, all is not lost. Simply use them to make French Toast Casserole! It was so good!! :)

21 May 2013

Finding Joy Through our Trials

This past Sunday, our lesson at church was all about learning and growing from and finding the joy in the trials we face. And I had so many thoughts and feelings about the topic that I spent much of the afternoon trying to figure out how to coherently express the things I'd learned without yammering on for a million pages... So, as often happens, I didn't post on Sunday evening. I told myself instead that I'd do it in the morning.

But yesterday, I got all caught up in the dual excitement of my birthday and the start of The Writer's Voice agent round (go Team Cupid!!), and although I thought about my planned blog post throughout the day, I didn't pull up my computer to start writing.

I let myself imagine, for a bit, that my ultimate birthday present this year will be an earth-shattering clamor of agent attention for my manuscript. And I thought about how I've come so far with my writing since my last birthday, how the rejections and harsh critiques, coupled with amazing encouragement from trusted writers and publishing professionals, have shaped me into a better writer than I thought I could be.

I thought about how, in making my manuscript the best it could be to prepare for this contest, I had to give my characters some incredibly difficult challenges to overcome. I had to let them suffer, because a character who never has to work through tough times won't ever know what she is truly capable of. She won't know who she can lean on for support if she never has trouble standing on her own. She won't discover hidden talents and new ways to accomplish things if she never has to fall back on plan B (or C or D). And I thought about how these truths in the fictional world of my manuscript translate so exactly into real life.

And I planned to write yet another post all about how the trials and difficulties I've faced in my lifetime have ultimately been blessings. (I've talked about this concept here and here and here and here... and throughout my blog posts - but what do you expect from a blog titled "Love & Life & Learning?)

Then, tornadoes hit Oklahoma, devastating whole communities, and I wondered if it would be appropriate to post a message all about how our trials are for our good, and even when we feel like we've lost everything, we can trust the Lord to bring us through to something better. I wondered if my message of hope and encouragement would be seen as simplistic or preachy, in light of the current situation. But ultimately, I decided that, perhaps, there was a reason my thoughts had been dwelling on finding joy through sorrows and leaning on each other in times of pain. Maybe someone needed to hear the message.

And even if I'm the only one who really needed the message today, it's worth remembering. Because tragedies like this have a way of bringing people together. And we find ways to help each other through. And miracles do happen. We're not alone.

15 May 2013

Book Review: THE ART OF WISHING by Lindsay Ribar

THE ART OF WISHING by Lindsay Ribar is one of those rare books that I was waiting to read for months before it was actually published. I saw the blurb for it on Goodreads, and it caught my attention strongly enough to push it up toward the top of my "to read" list. So I was thrilled when a review copy arrived in the mail a day or two before the publication date. Of course, when you're anticipating a book like this, there's always the fear that it won't live up to your expectations. I'm happy to report that this one didn't disappoint.

Margo McKenna has a plan for everything. She knows exactly how she wants her senior year of high school to go, from getting the lead in the school play to getting accepted into the best colleges. When a genie grants a wish, derailing Margo’s plan, her orderly life falls apart. And when Margo suddenly finds herself in possession of the magical ring that gives its wearer control over the genie, she’s not so sure she wants to use her wishes. Even if the genie is someone as cute as Oliver Parish, the sophomore who is taking pictures of the play rehearsals for the yearbook.

As Margo and Oliver grow closer, she discovers that he’s being stalked by a man intent on destroying all genies, and only Margo can save Oliver’s life. But it will take more than just three wishes.

There were plenty of typical paranormal romance clich├ęs sprinkled throughout the book, such as the instalove that sprouts between Margo and Oliver almost at first meeting. However, Ribar gives us a new twist on the three wishes tale, adding an element of mystery and intrigue with the murderous subplot. Girls who want a hint of romance, with a healthy dose of mystery and a few thrilling twists and turns will enjoy Margo’s story.

*Note (spoiler alert - stop reading now if you don't want me to tell you how it ends!!):

13 May 2013

Happy Mother's Day! (Just one day late)

I am so grateful for all of the Mothers in my life! I didn't write a post yesterday, because I spent the day being loved by my children and calling many of these mothers (mom, mother-in-law, grandmothers, sisters). But this morning, I saw this video, that perfectly sums up my feelings, so I had to share.

Love and hugs to you all!

10 May 2013

Super-Secret Recipe #1: Chocolate Orange Cookies

Calling all Super-Secret Recipe Testers!
For those of you who have already expressed an interest in helping me test my super-secret recipes, thank you so much! (If you indicated an interest in testing dessert recipes, you probably already got an email about this.) For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, read this post.

My first super-secret recipe that needs testing is:

(Click the link and enter the password I've given you to access the recipe.) Please remember that this recipe is TOP-SECRET! Do Not Share it with ANYONE, without express, written permission from me! However, you may share the COOKIES you make from the recipe with anyone you'd like. The more taste-testers you have, in fact, the better.

Crock Pot Gourmet: Sweet and Sour Chicken

I had a little bit (okay a whole lot) of excitement here on my blog yesterday, when I got picked to be on Cupid's team for The Writer's Voice!! So, in typical Veronica fashion, I totally flaked & forgot to post the promised Crock Pot Gourmet recipe. (I've got to start scheduling these things in advance!)
Sorry about that, folks. I hope this delicious recipe for Sweet and Sour Chicken makes up for it!
You will need:
1 lb. baby carrots (or regular carrots, chopped)
3 medium bell peppers
2 medium yellow onions
1 (12oz) jar apricot preserves
1/2 c. ketchup
1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Chop the onions and peppers into large (roughly 1-inch) pieces
and combine all veggies in the bottom of an ungreased 5-quart Crock Pot.
(*Note: You can also add pineapple chunks, if desired. I chose not to for this recipe, because I have a friend & faithful Crock Pot Gourmet reader who is allergic to pineapple.)

Arrange chicken thighs on top of the vegetables.

In a glass mixing bowl, combine ketchup, vinegar and apricot preserves. Stir to thoroughly combine.

Pour sauce over chicken.

Cook on low for 6-8 hours, until chicken is fully cooked.
(Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature.)

Serve over Creamy Mushroom Rice (or your favorite brown rice) with a side of steamed broccoli.


05 May 2013

Crock Pot Gourmet: Potato Spinach Quiche

This yummy Crock Pot breakfast, Spinach & Potato Quiche,
can be easily adapted either for vegetarians:
or for carnavores, like my hubby & kids.
If you want the vegetarian option
(or if you're watching your fat and cholesterol intake), simply omit the sausage.
(This recipe doesn't easily adapt to vegan menus, though, because it's mostly eggs and cheese.)
You will need:
5 large russet potatoes
1 lb. frozen chopped spinach
4 large eggs
1 lb. cottage cheese
1/2 lb. sharp cheddar cheese
(or use extra sharp cheese, & you can cut it back to 1/4 lb. while still retaining the flavor)
6 oz. sausage patties (optional)
Place the spinach in a large, glass mixing bowl.

Thaw in microwave, just until you can stir it & separate the leaves.
Add cottage cheese and eggs.
Stir to combine thoroughly.
Slice potatoes into rounds about 1/8-inch thick.
Spray crock pot with oil, and layer potatoes on bottom of crock.

Top with approximately 1/5 of spinach mixture.

Add about 2 Tbsp. grated cheddar.

Repeat layers.

In third layer, add sausage (if desired) between spinach mixture and cheese.

Repeat layers twice more, ending with spinach mixture and remaining cheddar.

Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, until eggs are set and potatoes are tender. (This is a perfect meal to put into the crock pot before going to bed for an easy breakfast in the morning.)
Serve alone, or with a side of steamed broccoli.