Waxing My Cheese

My Curds...without the Whey

No, it’s not a bad euphemism.  I honestly waxed cheese tonight.  Actually, Steph did most of the work.  I stood around and made sure the fumes from the melting cheese wax didn’t render either of us unconscious or burst into flames.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The process began this past weekend. We picked up a few gallons of fresh-from-the-cow milk from a farmer we know outside of town.  This is preferred since the milk hasn’t been pasteurized.  Believe it or not, all that stuff everyone says is bad for you really isn’t that bad.  It’s what helps make cheese what it is.  After throwing in some rennet, a couple of hot water baths, and some other magical touches, the milk curdles up.  The whey is strained off (sometimes made into ricotta, but that’s another post) and we get the curds.

After the 1st Pressing

Most weekends, we make Farmhouse Cheddar, but this time we went with a Jalapeno Cheddar Cheese. This meant we had to throw in a bunch of hot peppers along with the cheese salt.  It adds a nice bit of flavor and some heat.  Everything is stirred together and then put into a cheese mold for pressing.

The pressing happens in a couple of stages.  15 pounds for 10 minutes.  30 pounds for 10 minutes.  40 pounds for 2 hours.  50 pounds for 24 hours.  The whole purpose of the pressing is not just to get it into a good shape, but also squeeze out every last bit of whey and such.

The whole thing then sits out for a few days to get rid of moisture.

Some Eye of Newt...

Exposed cheese doesn’t age too well.  So after it’s try to the touch, it’s time to commence the waxing.  While it’s close to Halloween, no, that’s not blood.  We bought some red wax for our next batch.  There’s a pretty good reason for this.  The old wax we had was a neutral color.  Pretty much the same color.  This caused a slight problem.  Since we brush the wax on our cheese (store cheese is usually dipped in the wax), it was damn near impossible for us to figure out if we covered a spot or not.  We usually ended up doing four or five coats just to make sure.  The red wax made a huge difference.

That's Some Hot Jalapeno

See what I mean?  The red on yellow is a big improvement over yellow on yellow.

What you can’t see is the fans blowing over the stove.  This isn’t something you want to do in an enclosed space.  I wasn’t kidding when I said I was watching out for it burst into flames.  Out of picture is the fire extinguisher.

Fortunately, cheese wax cools pretty quick.  It probably took less than 15 minutes in total from melting the wax to apply two coats and doing some touch up. Slap on a label and you’re done.

The last step?  To the Cheese Cave!

Err … I mean the dorm fridge we have in the basement that serves as a perfect spot to age cheese.  The temperature is just right and a small dish of water provides just the right amount of moisture.  There the cheese will sit and age for 2 to 6 months, torturing us each time we open the door.

Is it a lot of work?  Yeah.  Most of a day.  Is it worth it?  God yes.  Six bucks of milk and we get two+ pounds over cheese.  Velveeta will never enter this house.

Cheese on the left. Steph on the right.
To the Cheese Cave!
The Cheese Cave!

The Moment of Inspiration

Some people write in the morning.  Others write in the afternoon or over breaks.

Me, I’m a late night writer.  My Beast, whom I affectionately refer to as my Writing Moose, tends to come out late at night.  This ain’t bad when the Moose shows up sometime around 7:30 or 8:30 or even 9:00. These are what I call good nights. This is what I’m trying to tame the Moose so that it does this regularly.

But there is the occasional day when the Moose wanders in and smacks me upside the head and says “Here’s an idea!”.  This happens right around 11pm or later.  So I have to turn on a light and jot down those notes or they are lost forever.  This annoys Steph to no end.

So Steph, this one is for you 🙂


Once upon a time…

Beginnings are essential to a story.  I mean, without the beginning, how would you know where to start? Every book would read like the movie Pulp Fiction.

Bad humor aside, getting the beginning to a story right is incredibly important.  Every writer has heard how famous authors have re-written their opening lines twenty or thirty or forty times.  It may seem like overkill, but its not. Go into any bookstore and grab a book at random.  You’ll know with the first sentence if you want to keep reading.

As I was told at VP : “The first sentence buys the first page.  The first page buys the first chapter.  The first chapter buys the book.”

So I changed the opening to Genie Memories.

“Kill him.  Forgive him.  I don’t much care.  I’m just offering you a chance, Theo.”

This isn’t a bad sentence.   It hints at conflict.  Conflict is essential in stories.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen for another eighteen pages.  That aside, you do find out the main character’s name (Theo) and that there is some sort of history (the ‘forgive him’ bit).  But you don’t know who is talking or who ‘him’ is.  Another downside is that this was opening with dialogue.  People have mixed feelings on this.  Some say “No”, some say “Yes”.  I think it comes down to if you’ve got a strong opening.  In my case, I wasn’t positive I had the best.

I flipped the power switch on the generator and waited to kill a Genie named Barry.

Is this better? Maybe.  To start, it’s not dialogue so that whole argument goes out the window.  You also know there is going to be conflict right away.  That was one thing people stated to me consistently – the fight scene between Theo and Barry needed to happen right away, not eighteen pages in.  And hopefully, the reader is going to wonder ‘What is a Genie and why is it named Barry?’.  Does this buy the first page?  I hope so.

Of course, the first page has to be worth reading too. In my case, the material I submitted to Viable Paradise wasn’t too bad but I discovered I was telling the reader far more than they needed to know. I’m not sure they would have gotten all the way through the first chapter.  For example, there was a lot of back story that was thrown in for the reader’s sake.  There’s no reason the characters should have been talking about that so I removed it.  I’ll work it in later, when its appropriate.

No doubt, everything will change again before it’s complete, but it’s a good start and I’m pretty happy with it.  So for your pleasure, here’s the magic of revision:

  • Old Chapter One: 4558 words
  • Old Chapter Two: 3460 words

In revision, Chapter One was broken into two.  Chapter Two became the new third chapter.

  • New Chapter One: 1125 words
  • New Chapter Two: 1400 words
  • New Chapter Three: 2682 words

Combined, the three chapters are 5207 words.  That’s about 2 pages longer than the original Chapter One.  Not too bad.

I think that’s a good beginning.

The Computer Is Your Friend

"Do you trust the Computer, citizen?

Steph uses this bar code scanner for her job, so we leave it connected to the computer.  Of course, it’s sitting on top so every time I open the DVD drive or plug something in the USB slots, it tries to scan me.

I think my computer is trying to figure me out.

Steph would like to wish it luck.

A New Theme

There may be some changes on the page today.  I’m tinkering around with a few new themes and seeing what works best.

The previous one was called Fresh-Editorial and I was fond of it, but I couldn’t make it do a few things that I wanted for the long run.  The current new front runner is called Monochrome.  It’s simple and clean-cut, which is exactly what I like in a web page.  A downside is the text – gray on white.  I’ll probably switch that to black and see how it looks.  Suggestions or advice are always welcome.

Viable Paradise – Tips for Future Students

The Final Viable Paradise post … for now 🙂

When I was accepted into Viable Paradise, the first thing I did was to hit the Internet and start searching out other people’s experiences and suggestions.  Some of those really paid off. So in my final post on Viable Paradise, I’m paying the favor back by listing my own.

  • Start With Reading …
    Reports from VP XIII compiled by Cath Shaff-Stump, one of the other Iowans to make the trip to VP XIII.  She’s done a great job of following all our fellow classmates’ blogs and journals.  Another good one to hit is the Viable Paradise Index, compiled by Pam Bennett-Skinner of VP XI.  She’s been working on all the years of VP so its great to see how its progressed and the success others have had.
  • Have  a Supportive Spouse/Partner/Friend
    I cannot stress how important this is.  Your spouse or partner or friend will be the person who encourages you to go to Viable Paradise, knowing that all the while, they’ll be back home shouldering your load of the daily household chores.  They’ll also keep you grounded when things get a little rough mid-week.  Being able to talk to Steph on a daily basis through Skype was a god-send.

    Note – As Linda points out in the comments, it’s certainly not necessary to have a spouse/partner/friend to survive VP.  In my case, it helped out quite a bit.  But it’s completely possible to have a mind blowing experience without one and the Staff and your fellow students will be more than happy to provide you with support.

  • Bring a Digital Recorder
    Since I have a habit of being distracted by shiny objects, recording the lectures and One-on-Ones let me go back and see what I missed.  I missed a few of the collegiums, but luckily Brent was doing his own recording and is getting me copies of those.  Important Note – Use this only for personal purposes, not to post on the Internet or make into a Podcast.  You will be eaten alive and scorned for the rest of your life if you do that.
  • Take Your Vitamins and Get Some Exercise
    Orange Juice and Echinicea.  I suspect that downing both of these in great quantities was the reason why I didn’t get sick during VP week.  You’ll be operating on very little sleep and surrounded by other people.  Take precautions and be smart.  Also, get out for those forced marches.  Yeah, 6:30am is a bit on the early side but you’ll feel better for it.  If you don’t want to get up then, go out later in the day when you’ve got a chance.  Your body and mind will appreciate it.
  • Don’t Be a Wallflower
    I’m not naturally an outgoing person.  I had this fear that I’d sit in the corner and listen and watch and never interact.  Don’t do that.  I still waffle on what was the greatest experience – listening to the lectures, the one-on-ones, or the time I spent with my fellow classmates.  Getting out and talking to them was incredible.  When the instructors say that their doors are open all the time, believe them and drop in for a chat now and then.
  • Polish Your Work
    Find a Drill Sarge and learn how to polish your boots.  Then apply that to your manuscript.  Some of the people who attended got in via the Waiting List.  They had incredible works.  If that got them put onto the Waiting List, imagine how good it has to be to get accepted straight away.
  • Seek Out Advice, Seek Out One-On-Ones
    Every student is given two One-on-Ones.  Want a third?  Ask for it.  Want a fourth?  Ask for it.  I don’t know of anyone who was turned down.  It was during the One-on-Ones that the hard questions were asked, the questions that you have to be able to answer or the reader won’t know.    Likewise, seek out your fellow classmates and just chat with them.  My class had people from all over the United States and a few European countries too.  Those are vastly different viewpoints that you might not get at home.

Is there other stuff?  I’m sure there is but I can’t remember it all right now.  And some things are better learned through experience.  Got a question?  Just ask.

Viable Paradise – Saturday

“Matt – I will always remember your name!  Now go write!”
-inscription inside of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi


The saddest day of the workshop. The day it all ends.

People started leaving early, some even the night before.  There was a small gathering in the Staff Den for a mixed breakfast and more teary farewells.  I got and gave plenty of hugs, a lot of handshakes.  “Zeus” (Scalzi) roused himself from sleep and said goodbye from the balcony.

Steven Gould drove George, Christian, Darice, Lisa, and I to the ferry which took us back to Woods Hole.  George left before the bus ride to the airport. I was the first one to get off at the airport.

I spent the next three hours sitting at the terminal in Boston/Logan waiting for my flight.  After a week of being surrounded by people, I was quite lonely.  I paid for Internet and watched people’s Twitter feeds as they boarded planes or the ferry or made their way home.  I had lunch in a bar, read a book, and didn’t talk to a soul.

Then I got on a flight (delayed when the President of the United States decided to hit Boston for a brief bit) and headed to Chicago.  Dinner was in another empty restaurant.  Then, at last, the short hop to Dubuque.

When my plane landed, Steph was waiting for me and I gave her a hell of a hug.  She was the one who pushed me to apply to VP and supported me every step of the way.  There wasn’t a chance I could have done it without her.  We drove to my parents house, spent the night, then headed home the next day to face reality.

Without a doubt, Viable Paradise has been a changing point in my life.  I learned a ton – about writing and about myself. I meet some awesome people.  They are now part of my VP tribe.  They are all damn talented and deserve all the success that comes their way (and it will, I’m sure of it).

I went to Viable Paradise to find out if I had what it took to become a writer.  I answered that question and one more:

Yes, I have what it takes to be a writer.

And this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.


Viable Paradise – Friday

… Until Hell Won’t Have It.


The day started with a collegium on Research led by DD who showed us how to become an expert on any subject in just two weeks.  Hint – it involves going to your Library *gasp*.  A whole lot of people offered advice, things that I’d never thought of before.  Even a simple thing like adding +diagram to a Google search can make a world of difference.

That was followed up by a lecture on The State of the Industry by PNH.  He started off with some sobering news, such as the fact that 50% of Americans never set foot in a bookstore in the span of a year.  I mean, seriously?  I knew that people didn’t read as much because of TV and the Internet, but half the country?  Damn.  He also went over how the publishing industry got to where it was today.  In all, it was quite interesting.

On the flip side, we can’t worry about what we can’t control.  Just write the best damned story we can and the rest will take care of itself.  As PNH said, “Luck is the residue of preparation.”

After lunch, we had our final collegium led by JMD.  It covered a variety of subjects, all covering how to get your story into print.  Every bit of it useful information.  I finally figured out how to craft a good query letter.  That’ll at least help me get my foot in the door.  Then my story can take it the rest of the way.

The rest of the day was time to kill until dinner, a mix of all the previous meals we had all week and a delicious chili-dog casserole made by Sean.  I couldn’t eat that, but God, did it smell good.  After dinner, we had to take the Viable Paradise Oath:

I vow to write, to finish what I write, to revise what I finish, to send it out (to paying markets) until Hell won’t have it, and to tell everyone that Viable Paradise is the Best! Workshop! Ever!

We were now Viable Paradise XIII alumni, part of a larger tribe of exclusive writers.  Teary farewells finished off the night.  George, Irina, Eric, Steve, Miranda, Leah, SG, and I spent hours sitting in Scalzi’s room, chatting about anything and everything.  Others drifted in and out throughout the night.  We didn’t leave until 2:30am.

VP XIII Alumni
Back Row – Jim MacDonald, Ferrett, Andrew, Sean, Eric, Matt (me), Steve, Lisa, George
3rd Row – John Scalzi, Bart, Darice, Robyn, Leah, Julia, Chia, Brent, Christian
2nd Row – Elizabeth Bear, Debra Doyle, Kat, Brandie, Lara, Miranda, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Laura Mixon
1st Row – Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Marion, Cath, Bo, Irina, Chris
Laying Down – Steven Gould

Viable Paradise – Thursday

“Writing is many things.  Being kind to your characters is not one of them.”


No break-out groups today.  Instead, we started off with a collegium led by TNH on Agents and Contracts.  Very useful from a business side of things.  I knew quite a bit of this (being a fan of Writer Beware and Absolute Write), but there were a lot of little tidbits that I had never thought of before.  She also talked about the importance of learning how to edit yourself so you can save money and time.  So like everything else, not a second wasted.

That was followed up with a lecture on the Business of Writing by JS.  It’s adapted from a blog entry Scalzi made.  Seeing it in person gave us quite a few more tips and advice.  In short, writing is a business so act like it.  And if you can, marry someone that’s sensible with money because god knows us creative people suck at it.  (Right, Steph?)

I also pulled off a One-on-One with Bear during lunch.  This was pretty cool, as she focused more on the voice of the first person narrative than anything else.  It was also helpful as my previous ones had focused on character and plot. Bear gave me a ton of recommendations and suggestions.  Being as how Genie Memories is my first foray into First Person POV, I soaked in every bit.

My One-on-One was held in the Staff and led to one of the coolest examples of how damn good the VP Staff are.  Bart was listening in as Bear recommended a book, ‘Hour of the Octopus’.  Little did I know, after lunch, Bart went to the local used bookstore and found a copy.  He brought it back and proceeded to give to me.

Simply incredible.

That afternoon,we were treated to a lecture on Character by SG.  Lots of good information in that one.  I’ve already made notes on how to tweak my characters and make it that much more real.  He also read the highly enjoyable ‘Behaving Badly As a Career Strategy‘ article that he posted on TOR.com.

Later, we broke into smaller groups, each one headed by an instructors (I had JMD) and read through our stories and writing prompts.  All the stories were great.  Ferrett actually had me feeling emotion for a squid.  Bo knocked my socks off with a butterfly zeppelin and Chia’s clown brigades, well, it’s a brigade of clowns.  C’mon.  My story had a crazed jester going on a rampage in an orphanage.  Between Chia and I, I think we have the potential to traumatize children for ages to come.

Jellyfish Walk - Pic from Chia
Jellyfish Walk - Pic from Chia

Dinner was some delicious curry (with oodles of kale), then a long night of mingling and talking.  There were no more assignments or readings.  It was just time to get to know one another.  It was great.  Sometime around 11pm, we all gathered up and headed down the road to watch the glow-in-the-dark jellyfish.  That was simply amazing.  These little flashing lights in the water.  Looking up was another sight – a perfectly clear sky without a hint of moon or light pollution.  The Milky Way was a bright band from one end of the sky to the next.  It was beautiful.

A group of us (Eric, Lara, Irina, and Miranda, I think, it was dark) stood around for a while on the beach and watched the sky.  Heard some great stories about New York and Central Park.  Got to know people even better.  In time though, the fog rolled in and we headed back for some much needed sleep.

Viable Paradise – Wednesday

I can’t wait to see ‘Whorelord‘ in book stores.


Bright and early and stretchy.  Started the day off joining Bear and Julia for a yoga session at 6am.  It was cold and a little drizzly, so of course, we went outside.  We were buzzed by an owl (I think) and paid attention to how much the world around us changed during our short work out.  It was a good way to open what would be the shortest day of the workshop.

Break-out groups happened early.  I critiqued stories by Cath and Miranda with DD and LM as instructors.  By now, we were all getting the hang of this critique thing, so I think everyone was giving better input and suggestions.   Both were good works.  Miranda was the more memorable, if only because of a single character – a prostitute on her way to becoming a warlord.  Thus was born the term ‘Whorelord’.   We got a lot of mileage out of that one.  When the day comes that Miranda is published, we shall all be obligated to embarrass her at panels and conventions.

After that, it was on to a lecture on The Care and Feeding of your Beast by LM.  Rather intellectual, but good points and some tips on how to write when the writer’s block rears its ugly head.  After that, it was lunch.

Kat, George, Steve, Chia, Irina (Julia and Ferrett in back)

The rest of Wednesday was off. This was a very good thing.  By this time of the week, each one of us has been through the wringer at least twice, maybe three times.  Most of us have been operating on less than a dozen hours of sleep since arriving Sunday.  We need us a break.

So it was off to the Bite, a sea-side shack with plenty of fried seafood, good french fries, and some fried ma n’ cheese.  I couldn’t eat much of it but I got to drool over what everyone else ordered.  Plus it gave us a good chance to see the interior of the island.  Then it was back to a quiet resort to work on our assignments.  Mandatory fun came around at 11pm – a reading of the Unstrung Harp (or Mr. Earbass Writes a Novel), a wonderful tale about what goes into writing a book and publishing.  Our version was complete with a tragic injury to Bear’s toe (blood and gore everywhere, totally awesome).

I went to bed early – 1am.