Pablo’s Cactus Jelly

What does making jelly have to do with writing? Nothing, except of course, blogging is writing, so I’m justified to that extent. Besides, the description of me making jelly has many of the elements required for a good story–goal, conflict, danger, humor, character development, plot twists, catastrophe, climax, and (spoiler alert!) HEA ending.

It all begins with this desert plant with yellow flowers, the prickly pear cactus (genus optunia), which in the fall, produces colorful pear-shaped fruit, below, right. The paddle-like leaves of the plant, called nopales, have some vicious spines, hence the name, prickly pear.

Cactus 016 

(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opuntia)

Although the spines on the nopales are conspicuous, it’s the fruit that will sneak up on you. See those light-colored bumps on the fruit? They’re loaded with teeny, tiny needles called glochids that lodge in your skin and make life miserable for several days if not removed. There are several ways to do that, none of which work very well. Best avoid getting stuck in the first place.

Which brings us to the topic of jelly-making supplies: see the two packages on the left? The yellow one contains rubber gloves (buy the heaviest you can find), and the white one contains a cheap shower curtain with which you will want to cover every surface you don’t want stained a lovely pink-magenta.

IMG_0259  IMG_0262

As you can see, the fruit has a rather thick skin or rind. I cut each pear in half and in quarters for any bigger than a golf ball. The juice goes everywhere, but…no juice—no jelly. I put the whole mess into a roasting pan, covered the fruit with water, and boiled it for 15 minutes. BTW—turn the hood fan on—it doesn’t smell bad, but not especially good, either. Once it’s done, it’s time for some hard work—mashing the juice out of the cooked pulp. In hindsight, I would work with smaller batches. Of course, if you go in for volume, you could hire some French peasants to tromp the fruit in a tub. Do that AFTER cooking. Glochids between your workers’ toes will get you a visit from OSHA. Here’s what the cooked fruit looks like (in the spaghetti pot), the colander and cheesecloth to filter out the pulp, and the bowl of juice ready for making jelly.

IMG_0263 Beautiful color, huh?

All of the above was just to get the juice. NOW, we’re ready to make jelly.

Put the cactus pear juice, lemon juice, and pectin in a pot and boil for 5 minutes. Add sugar, boil for another 5 minutes, then skim the froth so your jelly will be clear. Pour the liquid into sterilized jars and seal them by whatever method you like. Grandma sealed the jars with paraffin, but the USDA frowns on that. For best results, use canning lids, tighten the rings finger tight, and immerse the filled jar in boiling water for 5 minutes. Take them out, cool them and you’ve got JELLY!

Wellll, maybe not.   😦

There’s always the chance that the jelly doesn’t jell. Yup, that happened to me. The internet was most helpful. It said I either undercooked the liquid or overcooked it or didn’t have enough pectin or lemon juice or had the wrong amount of sugar. Thank you very much. I guessed it needed more pectin. I opened all jars, dumped the un-jelled jelly in a bowl, and stuck the jars in the dishwasher. While that was running, I went to the store and got more pectin and more canning lids. With the additional pectin in the mix, I started the whole process over again. This time, I got jelly!

25 8-oz jars not counting what I’ll get from the leftover juice.

Jelly Jar

My advice: PAY SOMEONE ELSE TO DO THIS! It’s a LOT of work, and a LOT of things can go wrong. For example:

  • I used channel-lock pliers to very carefully pick the fruit yet still got several painful pokes.
  • In spite of all my precautions, juice inevitably squirted, ran, and splashed on me, the cabinets, and floor.
  • There’s so much pulp in the fruit, it clogs the holes in whatever filtering medium you use—spaghetti strainer, colander, cheesecloth. You almost need a centrifuge!
  • Boiling juice can froth up and over the rim of your pot in no time flat. STOP the process immediately and clean it up. Burnt/carmelized sugar is next to impossible to clean out of the stovetop burner pans.
  • Estimating the amount of juice you’ll get from the fruit is exceedingly difficult. I ended up having to go to the store for more pectin, sugar, jars, lids & rings. In fact, I still have a gallon of juice in the fridge that I’ll have to freeze or make into more jelly.
  • When you’re done making jelly, there’s a ton of cleanup to do.
  • And of course, your jelly might not jell.

BUT…

Homemade jelly makes GREAT gifts for the holidays, and making it will give you a wonderful sense of accomplishment (if you persevere).

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Book Signings

How you feel about them is determined by which side of the table you occupy—the reader’s or the writer’s.

For some readers, it’s a prestigious event—they get to be seen with someone famous, talk one-on-one with them, and carry home a signed book confirming their interaction. Other readers, less in need of vicarious validation, simply want the author’s latest book and to learn more about the writer as a person. Book signings evidently fulfill the needs of both types of readers. Why else would they stand in line and cough up their hard-earned money?

For writers, it’s a different story (no pun intended). Established authors can realistically expect to sell enough books to justify the time spent signing books and chatting with fans. Very likely, their expenses (travel, hotel, meals) will be paid by someone else. On the other hand, emerging authors, who have yet to attain even a modest level of fame, will be expected to pay their own way and will consider themselves lucky if the number of books sold is a two-digit number.

The success of a book signing is directly proportional to the number of authors participating and the number of readers attracted to the event. A highly advertised book fest featuring 50+ authors may bring in hundreds of readers. Even unknown authors should benefit from the stream of aficionados, assuming of course, the books being offered match the taste of the potential buyers. Sci-fi books will not go over well in a room full of romance novels, but a group of authors writing in the same- or compatible genres should benefit from their proximity to one another.

Being a relatively unknown author, I’ve chosen to team up with two other writers for my book signings. We promote ourselves as local authors and schedule appearances at nearby bookstores, libraries, and other stores that support writers. Besides the benefits mentioned above, having two other people at the signing table avoids the awkwardness of sitting alone with nothing to do between visitors. Additionally, even though we write in different genres, I’ve noticed that we frequently get “piggyback” sales—buyers of one writer’s books feel embarrassed to ignore the other two authors at the table, and they buy a book from each of us. As long as I get a sale, I can eat humble pie. 😀

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Happy New Year

First of all, no, this blog is not the result of a New Year’s resolution. I just haven’t blogged in a while, and it’s time.

I’m writing this blog because I’m doing something I don’t like other people to do—send unsolicited solicitations. More about that later.

I’ve got all my phones listed on the National and Texas No Call registries, yet I get a dozen calls a week that make it through or around the filter. If the caller is courteous to me, I’m courteous right back when I ask them to take me off their calling list. Unfortunately, they usually rudely interrupt me as I make the request, and they continue with their spiel. I rudely interrupt them with some choice words, and then hang up.

What am I doing to prompt this philosophical confession? I’ve entered my book, Stinger Stars, in a promotional contest. (He who receives the most LIKES, gets his book promoted.) So, I’ve sent solicitations for LIKEs to many of my social media contacts.

How can I justify doing to others what I don’t like them doing to me? By asking them to do unto me as they would have me do unto them.

Huh?

Okay, let’s use the phone call scenario above as an example.

If I send you a courteous unsolicited request and you don’t want to receive it or any future requests, I’d like you to courteously say so, and I will honor your request. If my request is not courteous, then I deserve to have you rip me a new orifice. Assuming my request passes the courtesy test, then I’d like you to evaluate the request on its merits. If you consider it reasonable and worthy of your response and you’re in a generous mood, you can grant my request (or not). That’s what I do. Do it back.

This is the “later” part:

The contest is on LinkedIn. Jay D has offered to buy 100 copies of the winner’s book and gift them to reviewers, who will in turn post their reviews for their followers to read. Reviews are HUGELY important in marketing and promoting an author’s work. That’s why I dare to risk irritating people with my solicitation for LIKEs. So if you share my philosophy and find the discussion of my book worthy of your endorsement, please go to the link below and LIKE my discussion.

Thanks, and Happy New Year (again).

Paul

Link

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Interview with Paul A. Bussard

In today’s blog, Mara Hodges, science fiction editor at Montag Press interviews Paul A. Bussard, author of the science fiction story, Stinger Stars. Note – if you haven’t read Stinger Stars yet, please be aware there are spoilers in the interview. Enjoy.Critter cropped

Q: When did you first get the idea for Stinger Stars?

A: There were actually two core ideas that had to come together before I began formulating the story: first, communicating with aliens. I’ve been thinking about that idea for decades, so “when” would be back in the 70’s. Second, mankind had to learn how to clone animals before a story about a cloning mistake could be written. Dolly the sheep was born in 1996, so that “when” was around  the turn of the century. Combining the two ideas occurred to me shortly after that.

Q: How long did it take you to write Stinger Stars?

A: I started writing the story in 2003 at my own pace. At that time I had no plans to publish the story, so I took my time, but the more the story grew, the more I thought about sharing it. I began thinking about publishing in 2010 or 2011.

Q: How does Stinger Stars now compare to your vision of what it would be when you first started?

A: Stinger Stars began as a short story with no ending. My “vision” for it was a dead end. When I finally got the regeneration idea, then I began to see potential in the story.

Q: Why did you choose Maria as your protagonist?

A: Good stories are about struggle. A Hispanic woman in a field dominated by Type A males with Ph.D.’s is bound to struggle and give readers someone to root for. Of course, I didn’t stop with just that. I piled problem after problem on her, forcing her to find solutions and examine her core beliefs. My goal was (is) to get readers to question their own life philosophies—imagine what they would do in Maria’s position or any other similarly challenging situation—to THINK.

Q: How did you create your antagonists?

A: Doug was easy—a rich, handsome guy full of himself, intolerant of imperfections in others. Making him struggle under his father’s thumb provides an element of justice, yet allows room for sympathy. Maria’s uncles were drawn from her heritage and required little exaggeration. Jake Blumenthal was a latecomer in the story. He’s everyone’s antagonist—Dr. M.’s, Maria’s, even Janie’s.

Q: What is your favorite science fiction movie?

A: Jurassic Park, was one of my all-time favorites. The “what if?” idea (extract dinosaur DNA from a fossil mosquito) was quite plausible, and the computer graphics in that movie were fantastic. The latter is also true of Star Wars, but it violates too many known laws of science.

Q: What is the first science fiction book you ever remember reading and how old were you when you read it?

A: That would be Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. I was in my early teens. The sci-fi element was so intriguing, I hardly noticed the archaic language and culture.

Q: Which authors have most influenced your work and how?

A: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells influenced me to read science fiction, which undoubtedly contributed to my desire to write it. Robert A. Heinlein probably set the standards by which I judge science fiction, including my own. I admire Ben Bova’s writing, because he’s a stickler for getting the science right. Orson Scott Card is probably the best all-round storyteller. In all cases, the “how” was that they wrote so well, I wanted to emulate them.

Q: What do you think it takes to be a good writer?

A: Perseverance. Sure, you need some basic writing skills, and I don’t want to downplay that requirement, but if you have a story to tell, the only way it’s going to be told is if you keep at it. Getting a story published is 80% serendipity, but that other 20% (skill, perseverance, hard work) is absolutely essential.

Q: What, if anything do you think makes Homo sapiens unique?

A: “At the level of the working genes, only about 0.4% of the DNA of humans is different from the DNA of chimps” That’s a quote from Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Somewhere in that 0.4% is imagination. I believe chimps can wonder. I don’t think they can imagine “what if?” like we humans do.

Q: In general, what do you think science fiction can help us understand about ourselves as humans?

A: Science fiction shows us our potentials, both good and bad. Before we step into the future, some (many) writers have gone there before us and explored the physical and social worlds we may encounter. They’ve imagined a myriad of situations and forced their protagonists to find solutions, all of which make us think.

Q: Practically speaking, what are the pros and cons of scientific advancement?

A: For every item I list as a pro, there will be someone else who lists it as a con. And then you need to know pro/con for whom, for what? I think we humans are driven to seek knowledge. What we do with the knowledge will determine whether it’s seen as a pro or a con. How’s that for weasel-wording?

Q: If and when humans actually do find another intelligent species on their planet, what would you ideally like to see happen?

A: I’m glad you said “ideally,” because “really” we’re not ready to meet another intelligent species. But back to “ideally”—I think the best that could happen is that we learn to see the universe through someone else’s eyes.

Q: What was the most difficult part of writing Stinger Stars?

A: Figuring out how Maria and Veintidós could start communicating. It was the most difficult, but also the most fun. The stars had no language—just the capacity for it, so Maria had to start from scratch, teaching Veintidós the alphabet, then graduating to the “See Spot Run” type of visual aids used to teach human children.

Q: Which character gave you the most trouble?

A: Belleville, because I had to keep the reader ambivalent about him until the real cause of the mass mating was discovered.

Q: Which character in Stinger Stars do you identify with most?

A: Maria. Okay, I’m a 73-year-old Anglo male, and she’s a 26-year-old Hispanic female. Nevertheless, that’s my answer. It has nothing to do with gender, age, or heritage; it’s her core values I identify with, or rather that I have given her.

Q: Which character would you most like to meet in real life?

A: Veintidós, of course. What an incredibly wonderful opportunity it would be to communicate with an intelligent animal with such a different perspective of the world.

Q: Do you have any plans for a sequel to Stinger Stars?

A: I’d love to write a sequel, but only if I can write one that does justice to Stinger Stars. Too many sequels end up being #2 in more ways than sequence.

Q: What do you want people to take away from reading Stinger Stars?

A: Many others have said it before me, but it bears repeating. “Do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.” Maria lived the dictum; Janie learned it and yelled it at her father; and most promising—Veintidós sacrificed returning with Maria, and instead, chose to stay in Peru to teach Trece to love humans. Altruism, The Golden Rule, Love One Another—use whatever words you choose. That’s the take away.

 

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Marketing/Promotion

Well, I thought I would hate the marketing/promo part of being published, but in spite of the dog-eat-dog competition, other writers are extremely helpful. Reviews are a writer’s lifeline to sales, so I’m happy to invite Susan Keefe to post her sci-fi/fantasy reviews on my blog. It’ll help someone else and I’ll learn something in the process.

I went to the Houston BookRave Saturday. The tables for NA/Adult writers were full, so I went to see how other writers set up their tables, what they bring, and how they sign books. Hey, I can do this! I met some more nice people & made some new connections for my writing network.

There was a glitch getting my e-book out. I approved the epub file last week, so I hope to have an e-book available via Amazon this week. Kindle, Nook, Smashwords…I don’t know if they automatically follow or if my publisher has to make that happen. I’ll check.

All for now, but please welcome Susan and check out the books she recommends on the Guest Blog page.

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Stinger Stars (phylum)

Critter croppedResearching the appropriate classification for Stinger Stars turned up a lot of information—some of it trivia, but some very interesting. Like, did you know that in spite of the colorful patterns octopuses* display, they’re basically color blind?

* The plural of octopus in English is octopuses. In Latin, it’s octopi. So if you’re a layman, octopuses is correct, but if you’re giving a doctoral dissertation to a bunch of PhDs, you’d better say octopi. Same thing applies to hippopotamuses and ignoramuses. Toldya some was trivia.

Stinger Stars share so many characteristics with octopuses, that I was tempted to put the stars in the same class as octopi, Cephalapoda, which means head-foot. (Notice I switched to octopi, ‘cause now I’m being scientific.) The major misfit is the appendages. Head-foot doesn’t exactly apply, since the stars are aquatic. They don’t actually have feet. What they do have is a head at the end of each appendage. If you’ve been paying attention, that means they have four heads!

Another characteristic of the octopus is that it has the most complex nervous system of all the invertebrates. Since I needed that characteristic and so many others of the octopus, I decided that the Mollusca and Tetrahedra phyla must have split from a common ancestor in the Late Cambrian.

No, I don’t bore you with that sort of stuff in the book. That’s what blogs are for.   🙂

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Stinger Stars

Critter cropped

I should mention that the critter on the cover of the book is not Pyramis nana (dwarf pyramid), but rather, Pyramis gigas (giant pyramid). The only specimen of Pyramis nana, a tiny creature about the size and shape of a Mexican sandbur, died shortly after it was found munching on a flatworm collected in Peru.

Dr. Winston Belleville, M-Gen’s top geneticist, took cells from the dying animal to create clones. Every attempt at cloning failed until, in exasperation (and contrary to ethical practices), he tweaked some of the DNA controlling the animal’s growth sequences. As a result, the clones grew many times larger than the original specimen, and three developed some very startling characteristics.

The picture below shows a proposed book cover with my very amateur illustration of the cloned animal. Its body, not including the appendages, is about the size of a golf ball. Jason Mowry, my cover illustrator, did a fantastic job of converting the animal in my imagination into a very realistic and somewhat formidable looking critter for the final book cover.

PABcoverOp#2

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Stinger Stars

One of the fun parts about writing Stinger Stars was to research which phylum in the Animal Kingdom my fictitious critter should belong to.

First, it looks like soft starfish (phylum Echinodermata), which is why I gave it the common name, Stinger Star. (It doesn’t actually sting, but bites with its beak and injects the contents of its stomach into the wound.) But, the appendages are not arms; they’re hollow with a digestive system inside, and each appendage has three eyes and a beak. Echinodermata is not a good fit.

Next, it’s a lot like an octopus (phylum Mollusca) in that it’s soft-bodied, has multiple appendages (four, instead of eight), and uses chromatophores to display colorful patterns on its skin. Mollusca is a better fit, but the characteristics of the appendages don’t match any better than for starfish.

Finally, I needed a phylum whose animals have well developed central nervous systems. The Chordata phylum has that characteristic, but the animals exhibit bilateral symmetry. Stinger Stars have tetrahedral symmetry.

The solution? Have one of my characters discover a specimen that belongs to a never-before-discovered phylum, Tetrahedra.

 

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Stinger Stars

Critter cropped

Writing Stinger Stars was fun–okay, a lot of work, but still fun. Inventing a new creature, Pyramis nana, (dwarf pyramid) allowed me to give it some very unique features. Here’s what my protagonist, Maria de la Cruz, said when she discovered the critter munching away on a flatworm specimen collected in Peru:

Santos! Alex, did you see that? The appendage followed the motion of the lens. Those hemispheres are eyes. It’s watching us!”

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