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I play electric guitar, a lefty Sheraton II.  Picking it up has made me a better writer.

I swear. Seriously, there’s a correlation here. I might as well go ahead and thank Steve Vai, the legendary guitar virtuoso who opened my eyes. I recently read Guitar World’s interview with Steve and guitarist Tosin Abasi, and it’s changed the way I think about stringing words together. Abasi and Vai spoke a lot about musicianship, but I think their words speak volumes about growing and evolving as any kind of artist.

…When I got hold of the guitar, the thing that really lit me up about the instrument is you try to do something and you can’t, but then you work on it and all of a sudden you can…That’s how it works. You become fascinated…It was an escape from other things in my life. And when you can’t do something but you work at it and then you can do it, you get this sense of achievement, which is something we all really thrive on, and also a sense of dignity that might have been destroyed by something else. So that in itself creates this feedback effect, this addiction. It was a beautiful thing for me.” –Steve Vai

Are writers so different? We stretch for the words just outside our reach, scribbling and typing and revising until we can grasp them. And when we find the right words to build a connection between the page and the reader, we’re euphoric, self-affirmed, if only for a moment . Yes, it’s hard to keep working to improve, writing book after book, but we crave that rush, the satisfaction of knowing these pages are better than the last ones. The struggle is its own addiction.

Vai elaborates on doing to hard work:

“…And when the Zappa gig came along and he was like, ‘Can you play this?,’ I was like, ‘Of course I can play it.’ ‘Cause all you gotta do is work on it. Slowly, slowly, note by note. It was unfathomable to me than any guitar player couldn’t do it. And I realized why. They just didn’t have the chutzpah to sit there and work on it…Greatness is an inspiration that a person has. So we can tell people how to be a virtuoso guitar player: just sit and practice really slow and perfectly and make sure you have vibrato and your intonation is perfect and then get faster and faster and just don’t do anything that you can’t play. Every week, click the notch up a bit. And then you’ll be able to play anything.

Writer, your keyboard/palette/lens isn’t so different than six strings. Play.

Abasi echoes Vai:

What happens is there’s this revelation that if you put in work on something you can’t do at first, eventually you can do it. And the first time that happens it is kind of like an addiction. You want it to happen again. And the more it happens, the more you’re confident that it can happen. So you start chasing your potential. You realize, Yeah, eventually I might get as good as I try to get. It feeds itself. So it’s not like you’re locked in a room practicing under obligation. You’re concerned with your own potential. You’re like, I’m full of potential and I’ve already started to unlock it. and I could spend the rest of my life doing it.”

Spend your life chasing down that next song or the next story or the next image or whatever it is you long to create. The process will nourish you as much as the end result.

Getting better on guitar is really just a reflection of your ability to chisel out your own doubt. Criticism can be devastating. When push comes to shove, we are all very sensitive. I know I can be. Artists have this burning desire to create something that will gratify other people–when you find the right audience. No matter what anybody tells you, we want to be appreciated; we want to feel like what we’re doing has value and that we’re making a contribution. But what we have to get through our heads is it’s not for everybody, but is is for a select group. And when you follow your muse and your creative impulse sincerely, you find that audience comes. They come.” –Steve Vai

Don’t give in to the monster of self-doubt. Find your voice. Build connections, word by word. Keep writing until you can.

(Also, get yourself a subscription to Guitar World. It will feed your inner artist.)

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(Roman Holiday’s THE LONG WAY HOME, my anthem and TRACKED’s theme song, btw.)

This past week has been amazing, and I’ve been heartened by all the well wishes about TRACKED, but something’s been gnawing at me.

I didn’t do this alone.

I wrote a book, sure. I set out on a journey, but all along the way, there were people who picked me up when I fell down or got insufferably weary or couldn’t see my way through. There were people who carried me.

  • My husband, Chris, who always, always encouraged my crazy dream and put strong arms around me, protecting me from the relentless monster of self-doubt. When I thought about giving up, he bought me a Macbook and Scrivener. When I vowed to quit, the week before I sold, he told me I couldn’t, no way, no how.
  • My incredible agent Sara Crowe, who is tireless and responsive and so capable and kind. She is my champion, a true rock star agent who believed in me even when I couldn’t.
  • My editor Heather Alexander, the fiercely cool Penguin who saw something in Phee, my Han Solo girl, and took a chance on her.
  • My best friends Caron and Rosemary and Candy and Sally and Alex and Kate and Amber, and everyone at DFW Workshop who read book after book and who were never too busy to encourage or spur me on.
  • My family, who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to be a writer, especially my father, who’s been with me the whole way, vicariously chasing the dream, getting just as choked up as his sentimental daughter.
  • My writing friends, online and off, who have been comrades in arms–Kendra and Bryan and Erin and April and Claire and Jamie and PJ and Janet and Julie and Lindsay and the Austin Girls and the Houston Horde and the DC Mafia so many, many more. If you’re reading this, the odds are good that you belong on this list, too. I haven’t forgotten that.
  • My first agent, Mary, who taught me so much, when I was just an embryo writer, still trying to find my voice.
  • Lastly, the infamous, mercurial Mr. Happenstance, who taught me that a good deal of luck–finding the right person at the right time–can make all the difference.

Thank you. Thank you for kicking me in the butt and inspiring me with your brilliance and saying kind things and tweeting me up. I can’t tell you enough how grateful and lucky that makes me feel. You’ve allowed me to be ridiculous and maudlin and silly, and now I get to celebrate and give you presents! So stay tuned, people of awesome, because I am already cooking up a MONSTER GIVEAWAY with lots of insanely rad prizes–a menagerie of carefully curated ‘must haves’ I know you’ll wantsssss, PRECIOUSSSSSS.

Until then, tell me. I’d love to hear about the people who carry YOU.

I belong to a great writers’ workshop, and we put on a writers’ conference every year. And this year, DFWcon melted my face off like Dave Grohl rocking during a Foo Fighters’ encore set.

Lemme give you 10 reasons why:

1. I met my agent, Sara Crowe, in person, for the first time ever!!! She’s so phenomenal in eleventy-billion ways, and hanging out with her all weekend just confirmed them all. I had so much fun gabbing and getting into shenanigans. (In-N-Out Burgers! Panel Discussions! Bull-Riding at Billy Bob’s!)

2. I met many other publishing professionals, and it turns out that PR genius Mer Barnes, and super agents Sarah LaPolla and Jennie Goloboy are just as crazy cool as you’d expect. (Psst…they aren’t bad at Texas two-stepping either.) And editor Stacey Barney? When she talks about YA, drop your fork and take notes. Her taste in good books (and dessert) is impeccable.

3. Alec Shane is at Writers’ House. He’s also a former Hollywood STUNTMAN. Dude. Fo Realz. He might not have an official action figure, but hey, google his IMDB page. Then award 1,000,001 street cred points for appearing in a flick called MAXIMUM CAGE FIGHTER. And award another 1,000,001 points for championing boy YA books. (Note to self: Write heartbreaking, edgy YA about a seventeen-year-old mixed martial arts master. Who cage fights. In Post-Apocalyptic Detroit.)

4. There’s a coffee shop in Hurst called ROOTS. They make blackberry green tea Chai lattes. That taste like warm blackberry cobbler. Don’t tell me how many calories are in a Venti. I don’t want to know.

5. Author Rosemary Clement-Moore is a perfect hotel roommate. She doesn’t snore, she doesn’t hog all the hot water, and you can totally pick her brain at 1:00 a.m.

6. Kate Cornell is the world’s best agent wrangler. She gets your agent coffee, packs a mean conference survival kit, tells perfect anecdotes, and absolutely, positively doesn’t hold it against you when you have to drive back to Abuelo’s and kidnap her because you couldn’t figure out the right exit to get to the airport.

7. DFWcon attendees are charming and sweet and 100% inspiring. When you teach a session, they don’t heckle you and they ask great questions. When they practice pitch you, they blow you away with high concept premises (Hey, Sally Hamiltinez!) and well-developed ideas. (Hello, MR. SECULAR APOCALYPSE, I’m talking to YOU.)

You can e-mail Jason at purplebondagelolcats@gmail.com

8. This year’s GONG SHOW–I can’t even, guys. What happens when you listen to agents gong and crit queries/first pages? A scorched earth, DEFCON LEVEL I nuclear blast zone of shock and awe-some. Mildly painful. Seriously instructive.

9. Rosemary, A. Lee Martinez and I taught a ‘Perfect Your Pitch’ class. And Candy Havens critiqued reads with us, too! Our best advice? When querying, your e-mail shouldn’t be purplebondagelolcats@gmail.com. Also, never google ‘purple bondage lolcats.’ EVER.

10. Author Roni Loren knows how to write a scorching hot love scene. She also knows how to teach you how to write a scorching hot love scene. She also, also knows the words one must never use in a love scene. No LOVE SWORDS or SECRET GARDENS, apparently. Can’t imagine why.

So…how was your conference weekend? If you were at DFWcon, I’d love to hear about your experience!

I just finished reading four books, back to back, and each one was STELLAR. That never happens, so you better believe I’m excited to praise these reads, all of which have a common thread–each features a flawed, unconventional protagonist.

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells.

Six Second Summary: (From flap) John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. To keep his obsession with serial killer under wraps and under control, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal high school life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation. After a string of brutal murders terrorizes his town, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.

I loved it because: Wells’ voice is electric–he keeps the action moving at a fast clip, but all the while, we feel the misunderstood, melancholy wounds that John Wayne Cleaver tries to conceal. There are twists and unexpected turns of fate that make I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER nothing less than stone cold amazing–don’t miss it.

Shelve it between: DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER by Jeff Lindsay and your copy of SUPERNATURAL: Season One, two other chilling, thrilling diversions.

BLACK HEART by Holly Black

Six Second Summary: (Adapted from flap) Cassel Sharpe comes from a long line of con artists and curse workers. Everyone wants him–the crime families and feds, but he’s just trying to stay out of trouble and protect the headstrong girl who’s always held his heart. Cassel will need every ounce of wit and will to make one last score, a final play to win his freedom once and for all.

I loved it because: It’s no secret I adored WHITE CAT and RED GLOVE, but Holly Black outdid herself this time–BLACK HEART is a David Mamet meets Mario Puzo masterpiece, one of the very best trilogy conclusions I’ve ever finished. Get thee to a bookstore right now and pick it up.

Shelve it between: David Mamet’s sleeper con-artist flick, THE SPANISH PRISONER and Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER. Yeah, it’s that good. A top shelf trilogy.

DROWNING INSTINCT by Ilsa J. Bick

Six Second Summary: Jenna Lord hides a lot of scars–her psycho dad and drunk mother haven’t protected her in life, and when Jenna meets Mitch Anderson, her chemistry teacher and coach, she’s drawn to him. He’s the one person she can trust, the one honest adult who makes her feel safe. In Drowning Instinct, lines are crossed and we’re left to wonder: Who’s the monster, who’s the victim, and who should live happily ever after?

I loved it because: I can’t resist stalker-ific stories or tales of obsessive love. DROWNING INSTINCT is both, and it’s just the right kind of unsettling story. One that’s filled with desperation and doomed affection–the kind that makes you weep and that won’t let you look away.

Shelve it between: Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS and TEACH ME by R.A. Nelson, two more breathtaking, catastrophically heartbreaking tales.

 

 

CAN I SEE YOUR ID? by Chris Barton

Six Second Summary: (From flap) True crime, desperation, fraud, and adventure: From the impoverished young woman who enchanted nineteenth-century British society as a faux Asian princess, to the lonely but clever Frank Abagnale of Catch Me if You Can fame, Barton’s ten vignettes offer riveting insight into mind-blowing masquerades. Each scene is presented in the second person, a unique point of view that literally places you inside the faker’s mind. The psychology of deception has never been so fascinating or so close at hand.

I loved it because: Who can say no to the ultimate choose-your-own adventure experience? I loved slipping into the minds of these sometime ne’er-do-wells, people who pulled off the ultimate deceptions. Second person POV is risky, but Barton pulls off a gutsy move to great success. CAN I SEE YOUR ID? is a rare non-fiction treat, a book that unspools like a series of suspenseful capers.

Shelve it between: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN by Frank W. Abagnale and FLAWLESS: INSIDE THE LARGEST DIAMOND HEIST IN HISTORY by Scott Andrew Selby, two more ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ thrillers.

 

Hungry for more? Try this recipe for ultra-dark, super sinful BLACK MAGIC CAKE.

Binge!

I have news! The University of Texas at Arlington contacted me about developing/teaching a few courses for writers. This spring, I’m teaching Writing Young Adult Books. You do NOT have to be a UTA student. Anyone can enroll.

The class will run for five sessions, Monday Evenings from 7-9 p.m. CST.

Session one: April 30th
Session two: May 7th
Session three: May 14th
Session four: May 21st
Session five: June 4th (No class on May 28th for Memorial Day).

Basically, during the class, I’m sharing every secret I’ve ever learned about writing, querying, revising, landing an agent. And here’s the thing…You won’t just be learning from me and from the other students in the class…You’ll be learning from some amazing industry pros!

Check out these STELLAR SPECIAL GUESTS!
GWEN HAYES lives in the Pacific Northwest with her real life hero, their children, and the pets that own them. She writes stories for teen and adult readers about love, angst, and saving the world. Gwen’s first novel, Falling Under, was released in March of 2011 by NAL/Penguin and followed up by the sequel, Dreaming Awake, in January of 2012. She is represented by Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. You can find her at http://www.gwenhayes.com/

Gwen will be sharing her expertise in creating chemistry between characters!

Jeff Hirsch is originally from the suburbs just south of Richmond, VA. Growing up, he always knew he wanted to do something artistic but it wasn’t until he started writing poetry and short stories in Junior High that something really stuck. Jeff  graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with an MFA in Dramatic Writing and is the author of The Eleventh Plague and Magisterium (Scholastic).  He lives in Beacon, New York, with his wife. Visit him online at www.jeff-hirsch.com.

Jeff will wow us with his expert skills in writing taut action with emotional intensity!

Kiera Cass is a graduate of Radford University and currently lives in Blacksburg, Virginia with her family. Her fantasy novel The Siren was self-published in 2009, and The Selection is her young adult debut. Kiera has kissed approximately fourteen boys in her life. None of them were princes. You can keep up with her at http://www.kieracass.com/

Kiera will be Skyping into class to answer all your burning questions about the writers’ journey! (Did you know CW snapped up The Selection, and a pilot is in the works?! You might want to ask her about it.)

Rosemary Clement-Moore is the author of award-winning supernatural mystery novels for young (and not so young) adults, including Texas GothicThe Splendor Falls, and the Maggie Quinn: Girl versus Evil series. Her books have been included on the YALSA list of best books for teens, the New York Public Library’s Books For the Teen Age and Kirkus Reviews best teen books of 2011 and received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. A recovering thespian with a master’s degree in communication, she now puts her drama queen skills to use writing novels and posting on Twitter. She loves coffee, dogs, history, Jane Austen, archeology, fantasy novels, comic books, Gilbert and Sullivan, BBC America, Star Wars, books with kissing and movies with lots of explosions. You can visit her webpage at www.rosemaryclementmoore.com.
Rosemary will appear (in person!) to teach us all about making magic on the page–creating rich narratives that sing with romance and  crackle with adventure.

Sara Crowe  is an agent at Harvey Klinger, Inc. where she represents adult fiction and nonfiction and children’s fiction. Her clients include NYT Bestselling author Jonathan Maberry, Nina LaCour, Michael Northrop, Lisa Schroeder, Kristen Tracy, and Dan Wells. Her authors have been nominated for Edgars and the Morris Award and have been on the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults list and in the Top Ten. She is consistently ranked among the top three YA agents in Publishers Marketplace. You can check out her submission guidelines at http://saracrowe.com

Lucky for me, Sara is my own (WONDERFUL!) agent.  She’ll be chiming in to offer advice and answer all your burning questions about agents and the industry in general.

In case I hadn’t mentioned it yet, I CAN’T WAIT FOR THIS CLASS!  https://www.uta.edu/wconnect/CourseStatus.awp?~~12CO1722001

My friend, the inimitable, awesome A. Lee Martinez, has a book coming out March 5th! In honor of Emperor Mollusk Vs. The Sinister Brain, I’m hosting an interview (you gotta check out what he has to say about humor and universal themes, guys.) and an EPIC FOUR BOOK PRIZE PACK GIVEAWAY!

Um, did I mention that each of the books is autographed and each one has a different, original sketch with the signature?! So cool.

All you gotta do to enter is read and leave a comment/additional question. Enter by midnight,  Thursday, March 1st.  Coolest comment/question wins. 

Interview:

1. I’m always glad to get a sneak peek of your pages at DFW Writers’ Workshop. For everyone else, can you share a little bit about your latest, Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain?

 It’s a story of a great supervillain (who happens to be a squid from Neptune) and what happens after he decides he’s not so happy being a bad guy anymore.  He’s not exactly seeking redemption, but he’s not interested in doing the villain thing either.  The only problem is that he’s basically too amazing to not be in the center of some sort of grand adventure, and since he lives in a universe where adventure is found in every corner, that means retirement isn’t easy.

Ultimately, it’s a novel in the tradition of pulp sci fi / fantasy.  Emperor lives in a reality where every planet in our solar system is inhabited, where lost civilizations are a dime a dozen, and where everything he does is important.  He’s Doc Savage, John Carter, or any number of larger-than-life protagonists who rule their stories through virtue of being incredible and absurd ideals.  In Mollusk’s case, he’s smarter than you, and he knows it.  If Lex Luthor came from Neptune and had no Superman to stand in his way, he’d be Emperor Mollusk.

So on one level, the story is about mutant dinosaurs and giant robot fights.  And on the other, it’s about the struggle that we all have to deal with, about figuring out our place in this universe, learning to live with our mistakes, and hopefully, not repeating them.  Except Emperor’s mistakes can blow up planets, so there’s extra pressure right from the get go.

2. It’s no secret that I’ve nicknamed you ‘Existential Loki’ because you write books with heft, heart and wit. You’ve mentioned before that humor is underrated in storytelling. Care to elaborate?

Maybe not humor specifically, but just fun in general.  There’s this tendency, probably as old as time, to assume that if a story isn’t Serious Business, then it’s just silly and slight.  We have always seen humor as an escape mechanism, something it often is, but we also tend to think of it as unimportant or easy.  It’s absurd.  I think drama is great, but it doesn’t have to equal melodrama.  A story can make you smile, have weird elements, and still have some emotional heft.

To put it one way:  If a story is about a protagonist’s personal growth as he becomes a better person, that’s generally considered light.  If a story is about a protagonist’s personal growth, but then he gets run over by a car, that’s generally considered deep.  And I’ve just never gotten that.  I don’t need characters to die or tragedy to be invested in something.  It’s an artificial paradigm that I reject.  Of course, I write books about robot detectives and space squids, so my opinion probably doesn’t count.

3. In your books, you explore universal themes in new, thought provoking ways. What core ideas spark your imagination, time and again?

First of all, thanks for that.

I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but most of my stories revolve around an outsider who is trying to live his or her life the best way they can.  I think that is something we can all relate to.  We all feel like outsiders now and then, strangers in a strange world.  My characters vary, but with rare exception, they are usually good people who end up in odd situations where the rules as they know them no longer apply.  And then they swim upstream, hoping to make sense of it.  If they’re lucky, they sometimes even find a place in the world.  But regardless, it’s all about living our lives without screwing up too badly and hopefully, helping each other along the way.

It’s not a new theme, but I’d like to think I can bring something new to the table now and then.

 4. What inspired you to become a writer and how did you get started?

 I was inspired by my lack of desire to do anything else.  I wasn’t “driven” to write stories like most people who start writing seem to claim.  I wasn’t certain what else to do with my life, and it seemed like a cool job to pursue.  I did consider art, and as technology has made being an artist easier, I might have even gone into that instead.  But at the time, I felt I was a better writer than artist.  I still think that’s true, but then again, who knows how I might have progressed as an artist if I’d put my energy into it?

 I started by writing novels and sending them out.  In the beginning, I had a very specific schedule.  I’d write for two to three hours a day, finish a novel in six to eight months, and submit with wild abandon.  I was fortunate enough to have Mom as a beta reader (and great source of moral and financial support to boot), and it helped me to figure a lot of things out.  And then I found the DFW Writer’s Workshop (completely by accident since the internet was mostly a rumor at that point) and got even more guidance.  It took a long time, but with a lot of help, I managed to get my break.  The rest, as they say, is history.

 5. I know you read a lot of non-fiction. Can you recommend something you’ve read lately?

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonical is a great book about video games versus reality and how reality could learn a few things from video games.  I love games of all sorts, so it has a great appeal to me.

I’m also enjoying That is All by John Hodgman, though I’m not sure that qualifies as non-fiction.  Still, a very funny book.

6. Who is your favorite fictional hero? Why? 

If I have to pick one, I’d probably go with Tarzan.  There is something about him.  He’s an outsider who is always viewing the world from a different perspective, and he’s also intelligent and formidable.  He fights lions and dinosaurs and LOVES to read, which is something that gets overlooked a lot in most media.

 7. Last Question. Finish this sentence: “I wish more people…”

…would buy my books.

 (Ha, I knew you would lead off with that, A. Lee.)

Just kidding.  Actually, no I’m not.  I do wish that.

But if I have to create a non-selfish wish, I’d have to say I wish more people would try harder to accept each other.  I don’t mean “understand” each other.  I mean just relax and stop hassling the other guy.  We don’t need to understand each other.  We just need to accept that people are going to be different, and that’s cool.  I don’t know why anyone wears dresses or watches reality TV.  But I don’t have to get it to respect their rights to do so.  We waste a lot of energy trying to convince people who don’t like us that we are worth liking, and for the most part, it falls on deaf ears.  It’s also exhausting.

 We do love to fight over our weird choices and strange habits, even while wondering why no one gets our own choices and habits.  Just imagine how much we could accomplish if we dropped all that busy work.

We’d have more time to read books about evil geniuses from Neptune, for one.

Shoot me a comment or question to win this AUTOGRAPHED PILE OF GREATNESS! You’ll get a whole library of A. Lee’s books!

 

After reviewing the advanced reader version, you better believe I’ll be picking up a final copy for my kitchen. Without a doubt, Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar is exactly what a good cookbook should be—illuminative, engaging, and filled with gorgeous, addictive desserts.

Following a terrific foreword by David Chang, author Tosi introduces herself and shares  how Momofuku Milk Bar came to be. We learn how it evolved from a tiny spot—a prep table and a downstairs freezer—into a thriving entity in its own space. The origin story is entertaining on its own, but add the next section, which includes Tosi’s ‘hardbody’ tricks and tips, and you’ve got a stellar introduction to an outstanding menu of to-die-for treats.

 And let me tell you, you won’t find three or four tempting recipes in these pages, you will marvel at the wonderland of options. Just glancing over the signature dishes (Crack Pie, Cereal Milk, Compost Cookies, Candy Bar Pie…) is enough to drive me to fire up the ovens. These dishes are so much more than the sum of their parts.

 Tosi hasn’t just listed recipes, she narrates them. It’s as if the master chef is at your side, guiding you through preparation of all the dishes. And she does it in a way that’s manageable for all levels of cooks. Many shortcut substitute measurements and ingredients are listed beside the more complicated counterparts—you can measure by gram or by the familiar volume. (On a side note, now I finally grasp why creaming the sugar and butter is so critical to a perfect cookie texture.)

 The narrative flavor speaks to one of the best qualities of the cookbook—it’s so incredibly versatile. Tosi doesn’t just give rigid instructions for discrete fare. She provides interchangeable building blocks of flavor and texture—so many crumbs, crusts, crunches, and curds(!) I can use in my own mad scientist sweet tooth lab. After reading the cookbook and trying a few things out, I felt confident about the foundational elements and techniques. Now I can combine them to suit my own taste.

 Mmmmm….I’m giving this book a permanent place on my kitchen shelf. Tosi calls her work a labor of love. I call it scrumptiously brilliant.  

 Hungry for more? Try this L.A. Times rendition of Crack Pie.