Tis The Season: My Mama’s Red Velvet Cake Recipe

Be careful.  This cake is dangerous.  And if you want to be extra festive, slip a layer of dark chocolate frosting under the middle layer.  It will Turn. You. Out.

for three 8 inch layers
2 ½ cups sifted all purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
1 teaspoons soda
1 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoons cocoa
1 cups buttermilk
2/3 cup butter or margarine
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoons vinegar
1 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/3 ounces ( 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons) red food coloring

Mixing instructions:
Line bottom of baking pans with waxed or parchment paper. Grease sides of pans. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour, soda, salt, and cocoa together. Set aside. Cream butter or margarine and vegetable oil. Add sugar and cream until fluffy. Beat in eggs. Add vinegar and vanilla. Mix until fluffy. Add food coloring. Fold in dry ingredients, alternating with buttermilk. Bake until done, about 25 minutes.
(Makes 7 cups batter)

cream cheese frosting (I actually double this sometimes, especially if I make three layers, but I am ridiculous when it comes to holiday baking.)
2/3 cup butter
8 ounce- package cream cheese
2/3 teaspoon vanilla
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup pecans or walnuts

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Ten Second Writing Lesson: Revision Suggestion

I was reading a student’s manuscript recently. I liked it, but I didn’t love it because there was something generic about the descriptions.  I shared with him a pretty easy fix that will make a significant difference in the draft:

Dear _____________,

Here is an easy suggested to amp up the language in your story.  Use your “find” function on your word processor and look for the following words– NEVER, ALWAYS, EVERYBODY, NOBODY, NO ONE, EVERYBODY, NOTHING, EVERYTHING.  You think you are using these words for emphasis.  For example, you say that NOBODY attended the funeral. I get your point that the guy was not popular. But it’s way more interesting for you to describe the two or three people that did attend.  You won’t lose the idea that this man had alienated many people, but you give the reader a more engaging description.

I want you to go through and find all the words I have listed above in caps and then replace them with more vivid imaginings.  You let yourself off to easy with these consensus words.  To say that “everyone thought that he was guilty”, is the kind of thing you should write in an early draft as a placeholder. Then, you should come back and take it up a notch. This is just off the top of my head, but  “Everyone thought he was guilty except the Eastern Stars from Greater Hayes A.M.E.  You could not tell those ladies that Miss Hilda’s baby boy was a criminal.  Not one of them was a minute under 80 years and they felt that they didn’t have to watch the news or listen to scientific experts to know what was what, and who was who.”

This is just my two cents. I hope this is helpful to you.



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Confessions From My Writing Desk

starting a new novel is frustrating like trying to start a roll of packing tape.  you just scratch and scratch trying to find a seam.  then you raise a little scrap, pull, and it shreds, but you start scratching again, and it’s a little easier this time.  you lift a another little piece & easy, easy, careful, gently tug.

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Silver Sparrow Flies to San Diego

Next week, I’ll be in San Diego doing two Silver Sparrow events.  If you are out in Cali, stop by.

Monday, December 5, 7:00pm– San Diego, California
San Diego State University
Reading and Signing

Tuesday, December 6, 5:30pm– San Diego, California
Adventures by the Book (Ticketed Event)

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Thank A Teacher Day: Patricia J. Ramon & The First Story I Ever Wrote

There are many teachers in my life whom I owe great thanks, starting with my parents, Dr. & Dr. Jones.  But I think I will spend this post expressing my deep appreciation for my eleventh grade English teacher, Patricia J. Ramon, who was the first person to encourage me to write fiction.

I was a junior at Benjamin E. Mays High, the flagship public school of black Atlanta.  It was a good school, but it was a math and science magnet and I was neither a mathematican or a scientist.  In addition, I was a lonely kid, much younger than my peers.  I felt like the new kid even though eleventh grade was my second year at the school.  I played in the band, only because my brother was in the band, but in truth, I was terrible at the flute and hated it. (I tried over and over to lose my instrument, but someone kept returning it to the bandroom.)  In the age of “Precious”, these highschool complaints seem pretty minor, and in truth, I was hardly scarred for life.  But still, I was a baby writer, full of stories with no idea what to do with them.

Somehow, Mrs. Ramon noticed little me. One day she gave me a flyer advertising a short story contest.  Would I like to enter?  She asked me in private, after class had let out.  I felt so special and, for once, seen.  The story, The Pursuit of Michael Thomas, became my whole reason for living for nearly two weeks.  The story was based on my incredible on a talk lanky member of the drumline.  Once I finished the draft, my mother went her her job on the weekend and typed it up for me on the IBM Selectric. 

On Monday, I handed my story to Mrs. Ramon, hoping she would think it was worthy of submission to the contest.  Oddly enough, I wasn’t worried about winning or losing the competition, being chosen by Mrs. Ramon was prize enough.  I didn’t even know when the winners would be announced, so imagine my surprise when I received a letter in the mail a few months later informing that I had won the contest!

I don’t think there was any money associated with winning, but there was a celebratory reading.  My mother sewed me a new dress– pink with a white collar.  My father made a special trip home form DC.  My sponsor, Mrs. Ramon, also attended. The ceremony was in the evening; Mrs. Ramon was off the clock.  Further, she had three young children and she not only brought them, but they were all dressed up like they were going to church in matching dresses and ribbons.  She must have rushed home after the last bell, fed the kids, dressed them up, and then loaded everyone in the car to help me celebrate my special day.

So, here’s to you Mrs. Ramon!  In celebration of this day, I looked up her address on line and I sent her a copy of Silver Sparrow.  I also sent her this, a copy of my prize winning story.  I hope that she will remember me.

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Silver Sparrow Flying to Florida

I’m on my way to Florida to participate in two events this weekend.  Here are the details– I hope you will be able to join me.

  • Friday, November 18, 5:30pm– Sarasota, Florida
    Bookstore1 Sarasota
    Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
    1649 10th Way, Sarasota
  • Sunday, November 20, 12:30pm– Miami, Florida
    Miami Book Fair
    Panel: The Writer’s Voice, with Justin Torres, Ana Menendez, and Lynne Barrett
    Building 3, Room 3208-09
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Please Vote For Silver Sparrow

Vote Today!

I am thrilled to see that Silver Sparrow is a Semifinalist in the Goodreads Readers Choice Awards thanks to write-in votes from readers. Now, I am asking you  to help Silver Sparrow to make it up to the next round.

Thank you so much for being so supportive and just generally awesome.

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When It Comes to Writing Time, Sometimes Less Is More

This Is Not Writing

Many of you know that I am spending the year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for  Advanced Study at Harvard University.  It’s wonderful here.  There are fifty fellows and we are given a full academic year to basically do our thing.  My thing, as you can imagine, is researching and writing a new novel.  It’s called Dear History and it’s turning out to have a mind of it’s own– but that’s a post for another day.  This opportunity is what I have always dreamed of.  It’s a room of my own and more.  The perks: Very few real responsibilities.  (We go to a couple lectures a week and eat a nice catered lunch.)  A large office with natural light.  Access to an excellent cappuccino machine.  Extra cool colleagues.  A monthly stipend.

With all these goodies, you would think I’m over here writing like a mad woman.  After all, when I am teaching, don’t I whine that I don’t have enough time for my own work?  How many posts have I written about creative ways to carve out a little time for your novel or other projects?  But guess what? I am not yet getting my work done here at Harvard.  Why? Because I have too much “free” time.

In my own defense, I arrived here bone-tired after the 48-city Silver Sparrow tour.  And moving was no walk in the park.  But that’s really no excuse.

Here’s what happened:  I have been sleeping late. Why? Because I have all the time in the world.  No reason to pull myself out of bed and be seated at my desk by 6:45am.  I have also been experimenting with my hair, pen-palling with half the universe, fooling around on ebay looking for pretty typewriters, etc. And I won’t lie– there have been spa days.  In short,  all this luxury has sort of lulled me into becoming a slacker.

Back when I was teaching, I knew every quiet moment was precious and I took full advantage. I would happily turn down three days at a day spa, for three days at a writing retreat.  I stole time to write and did it gladly.  (Remind me to tell you the story of how I once wrote a novel on my lunch hour, barricaded in the faculty loo!)  But now, quiet moments have become a little ho-hum.  I let this pass through my fingers because I know that the next day will bring many more opportunities to write.

Luckily, I am nothing if not self-aware.

Although this seems counter-intuitive, I am making myself write by giving myself less time to write.  I am putting myself on a schedule that involves more than just my daily date with the blank page.  I joined the gym and signed up (and paid for) three classes a week.  I joined the  Boston Athenaeum and I will go there twice a week.  Then, there are the twice weekly Radcliffe lectures.  I’m also making an effort to attend lectures all over the Harvard campus.  This week and next, I’m editing  a friend’s manuscript, eating up more precious time.

I’ve only been at this a week, but I already feel it working. A couple days ago, while attending a lecture on Romare Bearden, I came up with an idea so strong it wanted to kick it’s way out of my head.  The next morning, i was in my writing office at 5:30 am, eager to get started.

This is not to say that I wish I had a job in a canning factory or that my writing would benefit from me working the graveyard shift at the local mental hospital.  A writer needs time to write, time to think, and a certain amount of leisure.  A writing life must also be a life.  Not only do my new activities make my writing time more valuable– I’ll admit it, there is something particularly sweet when time feels a little stolen– but all the other things I am doing stimulate me and inspire my writing.

I’ll report back in a couple weeks, but I think I’m on to something.

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Sunday Night: Let’s Talk About Silver Sparrow on Twitter

It’s taking every bit of self control not to make a sparrow/tweet pun type joke. Every bit.  But here’s the news: on Sunday, October 30 at 9pm (EST), I will be the host of #blacklitchat to discuss Silver Sparrow and any other writing-related thing you may want to talk about.  And here’s the icing on the cake– this is #blacklitchat’s first anniversary, so I thought it would be fun to sit down with a little Q&A with Bernadette Davis, one of the founders of this monthly twitter book chat. (Are we twitter friends? I’m @tayari)

Q:  Bernadette, what is #blacklitchat and where did you get the idea?

 #blacklitchat is a monthly discussion on Twitter of books by Black authors. We invite the author to join us and answer questions about their current book, previous books and writing. Dee Stewart of Dee Gospel PR is the co-moderator and my incredible partner for #blacklitchat. 

I had the idea in early 2010 after one of many conversations with people in which I would mention a book or an author I loved and the person would say they’d never heard of that author or their books. These were books and stories that I cherished and it was amazing to me that friends who love to read had not heard about these books.  Instead of starting a face-to-face book club, which would be very hard for me to manage, I thought I’d see if other people would join a virtual Black book club online. Dee and I announced our first chat at Blogalicious 2010, a multicultural bloggers conference.  

Q: How can readers join the fun?

It’s easy; readers who have Twitter accounts can join in by searching #blacklitchat or visiting our event page: Or you can join in on Facebook:  We love to use questions submitted by readers during the chat. Anyone who wants to suggest a question for the author can email me their question or send it via Twitter DM. 

Q: Do you have to be Black to participate?

No – everyone is welcome to participate. We’re focused on books by Black authors and we are choosing books that readers of all backgrounds would find engaging.

Bernadette Davis

No, you don’t have to read the book first. We have folks who join us to figure out if the book we’re discussing is one they want to read and some who join us who have read the book and are excited to ask the author questions. Many of our questions are about the author’s current novel, but we also pose questions about literature, writing and process and how their work reflects or comments on current events or history.

Q. A little bird told me that there will be some special guests at Sunday’s chat?

Yes! We’ve reached out to our previous guest authors and asked them to stop by #blacklitchat for our one-year anniversary chat. So readers may see some of their favorite authors on the chat.

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What I’m Reading: Reimagining Equality by Anita Hill

I actually read Anita Hill’s new book, Reimagining Equality this summer, but it was just released yesterday.  This is the what I wrote for the back of her book.  It doesn’t really do justice to this complex and full-of-heart book that is clearly a labor of love. 

 “Combining the sincerity of memoir and the rigor of sociology, Anita Hill looks at home as a physical space, but also as a microcosm of American society. The women profiled in this engaging and moving book illustrate the challenges of living in America as a raced and gendered person while simultaneously demonstrating the beauty of resistance and the triumphs of family, community, and faith. Hill connects the dots between the home-making efforts of African Americans just after Reconstruction and the heartbreaking (and enraging) consequences of the subprime mortgage scandal. After reading this book, you will never see a house as just four walls and a roof. It is a dream and we, as Americans, are the dreamers.”

—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow

(In other words, read this book.)

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