When I decided to go vegan, I thought it would be harder. I love milk. I love cheese. One of my favourite comfort foods is homemade mac and cheese. I thought I would miss these things. But it turns out almond milk is great–in my tea or for cereal. And when I’m craving a creamy savoury dish, I make curry.

It’s not only easy, but incredibly versatile. It goes with whatever you have in the fridge. You can pour it on top of any grain. It keeps all week, for lunch and dinner, and you can turn it into a different dish every day just by adding new vegetables and eating it with different sides.

You need to know about the spices. There are mixes you can buy. There are powders and pastes and jarred sauces. But I want you to think about doing this from scratch. I want you to think about whole seeds and dried leaves and fresh herbs. It’s the difference between dinner and a great meal. 

Coriander is fragrant. Cumin is pungent. Cayenne is warming. Turmeric is colour. Green herbs are cooling (I like parsley; most like cilantro). An Indian cook once told me she could live with curry leaves and coriander seeds alone. Perhaps I’m lucky to live in a place with a big Indian population, but if you have an ethnic food aisle in your grocery store, you can probably find these spices for cheap. Buy in bulk and get only what you need. I store my spices in the small 125ml canning jars. They stack neatly in my cupboard, you can see through the glass, and they’ve lasted me months.

Spices should be toasted in a dry pan–no oil. Then crush them in a mortar and pestle or use a coffee grinder, if you have one just for spices. If you don’t have either of these things, wrap your whole spices in a clean dish towel and bash them with something hard, like a rolling pin, a heavy saucepan, or a bottle of wine. 

For a weeknight curry, I make sure the spices are ground to powder and throw them straight in. But if I have a bit more time, I keep everything mostly whole and wrap it up in cheesecloth. Not just the spices, but the ginger and garlic, too. This little package can sit and steep, then be plucked out before serving. 

The fresh ingredients you need should be kitchen staples already: ginger, garlic, onion, and coconut milk. I love leeks, but green onions are good, too. Sauté the white part, then garnish with the green. If white onion is what you have in your pantry, use it. If you like red best, use that. Canned coconut milk isn’t the cheapest thing, but look for the two-for-one or caselot sales and stock up.

I am perfectly happy to eat coconut curry, with some red lentils to thicken it up, then poured over rice. That’s my weeknight curry.

In a large saucepan, dry toast the spices. Crush everything in a mortar and pestle, except the chili, star anise, and bay leaves. Those I keep whole so I can fish them out later because they’re not very edible if you don’t grind them to a powder. The crushed spices go back into the pan with turmeric and a little canola oil. Add diced ginger, garlic, and leeks, but any onion will do. Sauté until tender and fragrant. Pour in a can of coconut milk. Add in the bay leaves, chili, and star anise. Add a half cup of split lentils. Cover and simmer 20-30 minutes. A few minutes before eating, add frozen peas or whatever leftover vegetables are in the fridge. Serve over rice or if I haven’t done any planning at all, couscous, which is ready in minutes.

On the weekends, I cook my curry in a big Dutch oven. It starts the same, by dry toasting the spices. Then crush ginger and garlic (don’t bother peeling) and wrap everything up in cheesecloth. To the pot, I add inch size pieces of carrot, celery, onion. I like some combination of potato, cauliflower, squash, or eggplant. These kinds of hearty vegetables need to go in now.

Dried beans or lentils need a lot of time and a lot of water. Add the coconut milk, then two cans of water. If you’re using pre-cooked or canned beans, just rinse the can with a little extra water. Lastly, salt and pepper, cover, and put it in a 350 oven. Cook for an hour or until everything is tender. 

Even when I add beans or lentils, it can be nice to have a crispy protein. Pieces of firm and pressed tofu, tossed in seasoned flour, then fried in a pan with a little canola oil, the same but with chickpeas, or even frozen, breaded veggie nuggets baked in the oven. I like chopped nuts on top, as well as some fresh green herbs. Baby spinach and frozen peas are perfect last minute additions which add also colour and freshness. Don’t miss out on adding flavour to your grains. If I have lemons, I throw a cut half into the pot.

Once you master the basic recipe, once you feel confident in what you can make, the rest is up to you.

[Buy this zine at Etsy and subscribe at Patreon.]

How to judge a book by its cover

I decided to start self-publishing when the tools got good enough for me to do everything myself. I’ve always been a multi-media artist, even when I was drawing my own pictures to go with my stories in those elementary school half blank/half lined notebooks. Computers only made that easier. My favourite game to play on my grandpa’s PC wasn’t a game at all; it was Print Shop.

The writing and editing wasn’t the hard part for me. It was making book covers as good as the ones in the book store (if not as good as the ones in my head). The internet made that possible. You could try taking your own photos or you could buy something from a stock site. But if you think a little different and search a little deeper, there are places to find free and unusual pictures to use.

+ unsplash.com is a collection of free, no-strings-attached contemporary photography. I imagine a lot of people use the site for their new start-up because some of the photos are very Silicon Valley. But this is where I found the covers for my last three self-published books. 

This photo started life horizontal. I flipped it 90 degrees, took my font colour from the palette, and added text. That was it. I was lucky this photo was big enough.

Amazon suggests 3200×4800 pixels, but the most important measurement is the ratio: 6×9. I suggest you don’t go any smaller than 1600×2400. That’s a much easier size to find in photographs. 

+ anything in the public domain. Search libraries, government archives, anywhere that archives maps. Maps are great because, if they’re old enough, they’re public domain, they look fantastic as background, and they’re almost always huge.

But if you find something you love which just isn’t the right size, there are ways around it. I discovered this photo on Wikipedia and fell in love. But the size and shape were all wrong.

I was a little blunt in my efforts to make it work as a book cover. I added a strip of solid colour at the bottom. It works because of the stark black and white theme, the simple sans serif typography.

(At least, I hope it works.) 

For my newest cover, the double novella which comes out September 2nd, I couldn’t find anything I really loved. In particular, I couldn’t find anything big enough. So, in the spirit of shoving two stories together and calling it one book, I shoved two photographs together and called it a cover. 

DIAMOND takes place in the snow and MESSES on the beach, and I love the contrast of hot and cold in these two photos. Both are from unsplash, and both are by the same photographer, which was not on purpose. 

To make this cover, I started with a blank canvas of the size I want, where I usually start with the photo. The water is flipped upside down to match dark to dark. The silhouette of the mountain at the bottom of the top picture let me use black to merge the two together. 

+ If you’re wondering where my logo came from, it’s the Unicode symbol for “thunderstorm”, but flipped.

Graphic design can feel more overwhelming than writing a book because they’re two different skills. Not everyone has those two skills. (And, hey, that’s fine. If you need a book cover, let me know! I can make you one!) But if you’ve felt intimidated, just start with a photo. Find a font you like. Pick out a logo (it makes everything feel so much more official).

+ You can do a lot with a simple graphics program. I don’t use Photoshop–it’s expensive and overkill for the kind of stuff I make. My favourite (Mac) program is Pixelmator, and even that has functions I’ve never used. 

My number one piece of advice: don’t make your covers look like everyone else’s. Make the one you want to go with the book you wrote. Don’t accept whatever your publisher sends you. Tell them what you like and what you don’t. Open up a graphics program and try something out, even if you only use that cover to motivate yourself to write the book. 

As writers, we spend so much time with text. But our readers see the cover first. Let’s make them great.

jessdriscoll:

I spent Sunday afternoon at a family picnic, and then when I came home, I went looking for Carmen Sandiego. These two events aren’t related, but they could have been. I was talking to my brother about video games. My aunt had just returned from Europe, and we were talking about travel. 

But the truth is that I was procrastinating. I was supposed to be writing about blackberries (they have not had the best summer), and when I realised that wasn’t working, I quickly outlined some recipes from my week in cooking to fill my eight pages. But none of my plans were coming together, and I was facing down my deadline.

Then I found this game, streaming online in its original form. This is exactly the Carmen Sandiego I remember. These colours, those pixels. I couldn’t stop playing. I didn’t really want to. When you don’t feel like thinking about the future, spending some time in the past is a comfort. 

If you were a brainy kid like me in the 90s, here’s the game, and here’s my zine

I spent Sunday afternoon at a family picnic, and then when I came home, I went looking for Carmen Sandiego. These two events aren’t related, but they could have been. I was talking to my brother about video games. My aunt had just returned from Europe, and we were talking about travel. 

But the truth is that I was procrastinating. I was supposed to be writing about blackberries (they have not had the best summer), and when I realised that wasn’t working, I quickly outlined some recipes from my week in cooking to fill my eight pages. But none of my plans were coming together, and I was facing down my deadline.

Then I found this game, streaming online in its original form. This is exactly the Carmen Sandiego I remember. These colours, those pixels. I couldn’t stop playing. I didn’t really want to. When you don’t feel like thinking about the future, spending some time in the past is a comfort. 

If you were a brainy kid like me in the 90s, here’s the game, and here’s my zine

I had been thinking about it for a few days, long enough that I don’t recall now what triggered the memory, but I had been thinking Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

The amazing thing about the internet is that these thoughts aren’t stuck in your head anymore. Now we have a way to make them real. It used to be that you’d hear a song on the radio, and if you didn’t catch the band or the title, you’d just have to wait until you’d hear it again. There was no way to look up that kind of information. Tonight, all I did was search “carmen sandiego game,” and I discovered a cache of late ‘80s/early ’90s PC games, playable on the Internet Archive. I knew I would find what I was looking. That’s the promise of the internet.

I spent hours playing this game on the computers at my local library. There were a few set up in a little alcove, blocked off from the rest of the library by a shelf. These were the computers reserved for games and other programs, like the Encarta Encyclopedia, not the computers for searching the catalogue. 

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was easy for me, even then. The date on this version is 1989, which means I was 7 when it came out, but probably still playing the same game for years after. (I remember the next versions, when the teletype machine was replaced by a flip phone, and then when they added time travel. That was when I stopped playing, though it wasn’t because the game got harder.) 

I was obsessed with this game, in a way you can only be with something very easy or very hard. There are obsessions which are borne of challenge and needing to figure something out. My obsessions are about the things which come easy to me, my places of comfort where I feel like I can succeed. They’re happy places because they’re predictable. I know how to do this.

Computer games have natural limits–or at least they used to. Updates were years away, and they didn’t come automatically from the app store. There were only so many options written into a game before developers had to ship it. There were only so many cities I could visit, people I could question, criminals I could catch. When you do the newspaper crossword every day, you learn the tricks, the quirks, the familiar vowel-heavy words. I learned the Carmen Sandiego facts and memorised them the way others count cards. 

Though the objective of the game is to catch criminals, win promotions, and work your way up the ranks until you eventually, inevitably, catch Carmen herself, my objective was never to beat the game. I wasn’t playing to win; I was playing because I was good at it. I had always been good at school because I had always been good at facts. I have one of those brains that is always on, always assimilating information. It felt like the game had been made just for me.

I loved video games then. I love them less now, though I play a lot on my iPhone, and I’m always looking for something to challenge me. I haven’t found anything as satisfying as Carmen Sandiego. She was a worthy opponent and an unexpected role model. She was a video game woman to be proud of. 

May she always be one step ahead.

[Buy this zine at Etsy and subscribe at Patreon.]

Sunday zine

My zines are personal, because they’re about topics which mean something to me. But they’re not confessional. They’re not the same perzines of the zine tradition. Just this month, I’ve written about fireworks, the night market, Levitated Mass, and I have plans for blackberries, pools, and leaves. Those are incredibly broad topics. You might not live in Vancouver and see our summer fireworks festival, but you might live in a place that stops to look up at the sky on summer nights. (I know this is true for America, because I can see your Fourth of July fireworks from my house.) You know what fireworks do to a city–they bring us together, even if it’s to be quiet in the dark, all looking in the same direction. You know what a fair does for a city, especially one with unusual food. You might not know Levitated Mass, but you’ve stopped breathless in front of a piece of art.

These are not personal topics, but they become personal because this is my zine. It’s documentary, it’s diary, it’s commentary on my life in the moment. But it could probably be your life, too. Maybe not in this exact order, with these photos, because I took these photos. I made these drawings. What would you have to say about spending a morning alone with a great piece of art? What do your fireworks look like?

Once you start looking for topics, you can’t stop looking. Your list gets very long. I had to start a September list below my whiteboard calendar because five zines in August wasn’t enough. Some of them might have to wait until next summer because the autumn ideas will take over. That’s a great feeling, that I’ll still be doing this a year from now. I already know what the topic for Sunday zine #52 will be.

You are a writer.

You’re not a writer because you’re published. You’re a writer because you write every day. That’s how everything starts, for me. That’s the power of moving your fingers.

If you’re blocked, if you’re stuck, if you can’t decide what to write next, what project to work on next, or if you can’t get to the end of something you’re writing right now, go to your local Call For Submissions website, find an anthology with a word count around 3-8k, with an upcoming deadline, and write a story. Just finish something short, fast, and easy. They give you the theme, usually a guide to what they want, a word count, and a deadline. Finish something. Submit it. Then move on to your next thing.

Because you can take that power of finishing and funnel it into something else. It doesn’t matter if it’s your best work. It doesn’t even matter if they buy the story. But you finished something. And you never know, you just might have sold something, too. There’s so much power in finishing. I feel like I’ve said this over and over, but it took me 30 years to figure it out myself, so I think it bears repeating. If I ever write a book about how to write (and it feels pretty inevitable. I think every writer has that book inside them), it will be about the power of finishing your first damn book. And writing every day. Even if you just do 750 words that don’t mean anything, that’ll never be published, that no one else will ever read, that you might never even look at again, write every day. Write in a notebook. Write on your phone. Write on the back of a receipt. Make words every day.