Wednesday, July 02, 2014

What my lo-mein disaster taught me about your revisions.

One fine day I decided to make lo mein. I'd never made it before but I'd liked it just fine from our local Chinese take out. The place I liked best closed up, right after a rash of murders of delivery men , killed for the cash in their pockets and the lo-mein in their white take out bags

I'd tried other places, but nothing seemed very good. So, I was off Chinese food for a couple years.

Then the yen for lo-mein hit and I figured, what the hell how hard can it be. You'll recognize that as Famous Last Words, right along with "here, hold my beer!" and "hey honey, do you know where I left the bear trap?"

Undaunted, I went to google, typed in "lo mein recipe" and found this:

12 ounces angel hair pasta
16 ounces mixed vegetables (sugar snap pea variety is what I used)
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

And of course, it helped that the recipe was called "super easy lo mein" cause I'd never made it before and anything super easy sounded like a good place to start.

So I ordered hoisin sauce for my next Fresh Direct delivery and right after Mr. Direct drove away, I commenced to cooking. I was really rather pleased with myself trying something new and particularly something new that included … hoisin sauce? (I tasted it first, rather timidly but it turned out to be pretty good.)

Of course, I made a lot. I like to make extra so I don't have to cook when I crawl through the door at night after a long day of crushing hopes and dreams and generally making writers miserable.

(Wait, that's really just a perk of the job, I don't get to do it all day. Some minutes I have to eat cupcakes and make sure the Query Blacklist is au courant. But I digress)

And when the lo mein was ready I got out my shark bowl and chopsticks and dove in.

And holy fucking moly it was the WORST thing I'd tasted since I don't know when. Maybe since I ate soap on a dare in nursery school.

It was flat, bland and such a disappointment. If the sea weren't already in danger of being too salty from shark tears***, I would have wept.

Plus now I was HUNGRY! I made a chicken sandwich, and reminded myself there was ice cream if the day got worse and retired to kvetch about this mishap on Twitter:

And sure enough a couple people did.

And were kind enough to send recipes.

Here's one of them:


2 tablespoons (2 turns around the pan in a slow drizzle) vegetable or wok oil
1 cup (2 handfuls) snow peas, halved on a diagonal

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into match stick size pieces
1/2 pound assorted mushrooms (shiitake, straw, enoki, or oyster), coarsely chopped, if necessary

4 scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
2 cups (about 4 handfuls) fresh bean spouts

2 inches fresh ginger root, minced or grated with hand grater
4 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound lo mein noodles or thin spaghetti, cooked to al dente and drained well

1/2 cup aged tamari soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, several drops

 I stare at this recipe for a couple minutes, and the light goes on over my head.

This new recipe has only one crucial difference.

Can you spot it?

It's oil. Oil gives most recipes their flavor AND brings out the flavor in other ingrediants.  The first recipe doesn't  have any. I hadn't noticed cause I'd never made lo mein before and I wasn't thinking "hey, what does this recipe need that it doesn't have."

So, I sautéed some shallots and some mushrooms in some olive oil cause I didn't have toasted sesame oil (but I sure ordered it quick from my honey pie Fresh Direct) added the Terrible Lo Mein and presto redemption. There's nothing olive oil, shallots and mushrooms won't improve.

Well, except ice cream. And coffee… ok, there's a lot of things it won't improve but lo mein is one thing it surely does.

Now, I can hear you asking "hey SharkForBrains, this is, as usual!, all about you. When do we get to ME. Specifically when do we get to how this dinner disaster is going to help me with my novel."

Ok, here it is.

When you're writing your first novel (or maybe novelS) you're making lo mein for the first time. You've READ novels, and loved them (I hope!) but you haven't actually written the 95,000 words that make a novel yet. So you do. And you read it and you know…it's not quite right. But not quite right isn't the same as knowing what's wrong.

This is where a good crit group comes in. A second set of eyes, much like my second recipe, can often help you spot what you don't know is MISSING. It's easy to point out errors on the page, but it's MUCH harder to point out what ISN'T there.

And if you don't have a good crit group, this is where reading the top authors in your category can be really helpful. Read them with a writer's eye. Try to see what they have that you don't. It's not as simple as analyzing a list of ingredients but the principal is the same. Find what isn't there in your book. Once you know, you can add it, or as I will be doing this weekend, starting over on a whole new lo mein adventure.



Jennifer R. Donohue said...

When you implement the sesame oil, be sure to use not-very-much and towards the end, else it can overpower the rest of the flavors. If you like sesame oil, it's less of a big deal.

Sigh. I really need a crit group.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

My crit group (their credentials are impressive) loved, loved, loved my first novel. They said my second novel would make me famous.
Both books are drawer novels.

Sometimes you have to let go of your own recipe and do store-bought. That's what people want I guess.

We don't meet anymore and I miss them because they made me feel as if all the effort was worth it. In a learning sense, it was, but the process has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Regarding my efforts, I simply do not know whhich cook to trust, least of all myself.

LynnRodz said...

Oil brings out the flavor, but so does the garlic. Don't forget the garlic!

I thought my ms was nice and tight, 67,000 words (no problems like a lot of people had with too many). I gave it to another set of eyes and was told it had the skin and bones, but the meat was missing. So I've added over 10,000 more.

Ah, it's all in the details, both in writing and in
cooking! Good luck on your next try.

Beka Olson said...

Lynn I'm in the same boat as you. It's daunting but exciting to know that I don't *exactly* suck. Write/cook on, ya'll.

Colin Smith said...

This is absolutely true with regard to getting input from other writers (crit groups, CPs, beta readers). It's also true about beta reading. When you read someone else's novel with a critical eye, you will often see things they do (right and wrong) that will inform your own writing. Like spotting that someone else uses oil, and you don't. :)

All the best with your culinary adventures, Janet!

french sojourn said...

A recipe for disaster??(flash fiction plug?)

nice post.

cheers hank

Just Jan said...

Thanks for bringing some humor to my well as a new recipe and some timely advice. Hope your next lo mein trial is tastier!

BlancheDuBois said...

Make sure your crit group knows that there's a world of difference between angel hair pasta and a lo mein noodle, and that there's also an enormous difference in the taste of oil from olives vs sesame seeds. (Though, in a pinch, this was a bold move!)
A crit group that lets you get away with substituting metaphotical Italian ingredients for Asian ones will get you a perhaps passable, but most likely unconvincing and strange book.
You're shooting for ecstasy-inducing, delicious prose, right?
(I'm a lo mein fan, too, Janet. I applaud your effort and your exploration. But I begin to wonder if the delivery guys were being murdered because customers were receiving angel hair pasta instead of true lo mein noodles).
When your sesame oil arrives, open it up and smell. Breathe deeply. Then do the same with your olive oil. Smell the difference? NOW you're cookin'! ;-) If it's toasted sesame oil, even better. Enjoy!!

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

Let's see, a dozen or fewer characters, a pinch of tone, a cup of narrative "voice" (not always available in stores), two cups of, what was it--?

Oh yeah plot. Adds raison d'etre, holds things together, brings out the flavor in the characters as they stew....

Can't TELL you how many creative writing classes I took n the 80s and 90s that left out that ingredient.

Tracy Townsend said...

The timing of this blog post couldn't be better for me. I'm sending my CPs copies of my newly-revised novel, hoping they tell me it looks good so I can move it on down the query chain soon.

And, mmmm, lo mein recipe...

Thanks, Janet!

Anonymous said...

My mother in law gave me a recipe once for date nut balls. I made them just like her recipe called for...and those little balls that were so scrumptious out of her kitchen tasted like rolled up pieces of masking tape out of mine.

I called her up. I read the recipe back to her. Silence. Then, "Um, what about the dates? The chopped dates?"

I scanned down the recipe, and I said, "you didn't put dates on here."

Now, the "joke" is that I make nut balls while she makes DATE nut balls.

And like a few others have suggested, definitely be easy with the sesame oil - it can be quite strong. I made homemade hummus once and that recipe called for two tbsp of tahini (sesame oil - doesn't tahini sound more impressive??? Like hoisin sauce)and I thought I would gag. When I make it now, I only use like 1 tsp.

BlancheDuBois said...

Donnaeverhart, sorry if I'm misunderstanding what you wrote, but tahini and sesame oil are very different things. Tahini is a sesame paste, kind of like a nut butter. Sesame oil is, well, oil. The paste can be bitter and kind of nasty if you overdo it.

Amy Schaefer said...

I now try to apply a critical eye to everything I read. What worked? Why did it work? What was missing for me? Did the dialogue ring true? If this were my book, what would I have done differently? Any time a story strikes me in a positive or negative way, I stop and try to figure out why.

I'm still learning, but I think we're all always learning. Wasn't it Stephen King who said the first million words are practice? And Malcolm Gladwell makes a compelling argument for the 10,000 hours of practice you need to achieve expertise in any field. I get frustrated sometimes, just like every other writer, but I know I am still building up my hours and always trying to improve.

She's not a shark, but Dory had it right when she said: "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim..."

Kitty said...

I let our local Chinese restaurants cook my Chinese takeout, because I know my limitations.

Lance said...

What happened to the hoisin sauce. Is that the twist in Act II or is it a data dump?

DLM said...

My MS is currently in the hands of two of the best beta readers I could ask for. They are my tahini AND my sesame oil. And I know which one is which, too. Must run and go tell them ...

Melissa Guernsey said...

Wonderful, as always... Lessons in Lousy Food...

Mister Furkles said...

When I moved to Florida, I couldn't find a good Chinese restaurant in my area. So, I signed up for Chinese cooking classes.

The key, I learned, to cooking Chinese food is not in the ingredients but in the techniques. My favorite Chinese cookbook is Ken Hom's “Chinese Technique”. It's old but so is Chinese cuisine.

Until you have everything working to your satisfaction, rely on your local Chinese grocery for ingredients and helpful suggestions.

As for ingredients: stop using vegetable oil. Chinese stir fry is cooked for short duration at very high temperatures—think seconds, not minutes. Vegetable oil and olive oil can't take the heat. You want an oil with very little flavor anyway. I use light peanut oil. Ask at your NYC Chinese grocery what to use. You may also use canola oil. (Sesame oil is for flavoring—so its strong flavor is desired.)

One item of stir fry technique: get a large strainer and a bowl to fit. Put the strainer in the bowl. As you remove food from the wok, put it into the strainer to drain. You want the flavors of your food, not of the cooking oil. (There are exceptions for some meals.)

Of course, if you find a Chinese chef, he may tell you that I don't know what I'm talking about and that's okay. I'm not a chef. But this is what I know of Chinese stir fry.

Steve Forti said...

For the record, ice cream is not for "in case the day gets worse". The day is, by definition, worse until you've had the ice cream.

Jenz said...

Bad recipes and bad crits exist. Eventually you have to gain the experience to evaluate and adjust your cooking/writing for yourself. And you will, given enough time and effort.

Anonymous said...

@Blanche - you're right...I recollect now that it called for tahini...and i.e. as you say sesame paste, and I only had sesame oil. Bottom line - it was really pungent.

Joelle said...

And here's my tip for internet recipes. Find ones with lots of stars that let you read the reviews. Then look at the reviews and read the 4 & 5 stars. Almost every one of those includes additions, adjustments, substitutions, and suggestions. The 1 and 2 stars almost always say, "I followed the recipe exactly and it turned out terrible." Real cooks know how to adjust and yet they "think" they're following the recipe...except for a tweak or a change or just a tiny little thing! While I consider myself capable of looking at recipes and making changes successfully, it's much faster to just read the ones other people have already tried! Just like your critique group. You can look at your manuscript all you want, but someone else reading it will give you new insight!