Friday, March 19, 2010

A Recipe for Writing...

I am a Foodie! I love to eat, but more than that, I love to cook. My collection of cookbooks fills an entire bookcase. And my obsession with cooking magazines rival that of Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection (reported to be over 3000 pairs). I have had to put myself on a cook book/magazine diet in order to save the bank account and the space needed for my other books.

At present, I am revisiting a manuscript that needs a major overhaul. I have compared my earlier attempts with cooking soup – same ingredients, same measurements, just stirring the pot in a different direction. I’m hoping, with some major work and a murder or two (of scenes, nothing criminal), I’ll be able to concoct a different soup. Almost the exact same ingredients, but different quantities and maybe a pinch of that or a cup of this added to the mix.

So that got me thinking about recipes. And the recipe for writing. This concoction will be very much a chef’s decision – not all of us need the same things to be a writer. A lot depends on our comfort/taste – where we are on our writing journey. And our writing process itself dictates in what order the ingredients are used. Some would simmer for longer than others, some less. Depending on the writer, the actual amount of the ingredient would differ – some need more of one item and less of another, some need a heap of this, but only a pinch of that.

Writing can not be boiled down to a specific recipe, but it does have ingredients; so here’s my Recipe for Writing:

Determination and Persistence: Large Quantities. The base for your writing career. Do not skimp on these ingredients or you will end up finished before you’ve even begun. These two ingredients will be the foundation for every article, poem, short story, nouvella, or novel that you write.

Ideas: The meat of your writing. Add to the above base and let simmer for as long or as short a period of time as you feel necessary. But don’t skimp on this ingredient or your writing will suffer, resulting in a thin, tasteless product most will consider unfinished.

Characters/Plot/Setting: Now, this is where variety changes the flavor. A disillusioned cop turned bodyguard, a headstrong prima ballerina, a crazed psychotic fan; a letter offering love or death; the long awaited national tour of Swan Lake – romantic suspense. A female private detective; a background check on a potential employee; a seedy underground network of child abduction – mystery. You; writer’s block; your office – a poem. Every ingredient takes on a new taste when mixed in varying degrees with other ingredients. The choices are endless. Again, mix and match, simmer and stir.

Secondary Characters/Sub Plots: In small doses these two ingredients will round out your writing, give depth to the flavor. These will be added to the mix here and there, but don’t let them overpower your work. A reader may likely forget the best friend, or the quest for better coffee, but those ingredients will bolster your main plot, lend authenticity to your main characters and leave the reader fully satisfied.

The Spices: Doubt, Jealousy, Frustration, Fear. Unfortunately, these spices are forever sitting on the counter. Present in the kitchen even if we make a valiant effort not to give them a shake. How you deal with them is your business – confront them head on, stick them in a drawer and try to forget about them, add them sparingly, but deny they’re a part of your career. My best advice for these pungent seasonings – overpower them with a heaping pile of:

Passion! Without passion, your soup is just soup.

If there is no passion in your life, then have you really lived? Find your passion, whatever it may be. Become it, and let it become you and you will find great things happen FOR you, TO you and BECAUSE of you. ~ T. Alan Armstrong

So, People of Blogland, did I forget an ingredient? Is there something you would add to your ‘soup’? How’s your cooking going?


Silver James said...

Janet, I think you've got a pretty good recipe going. I would add a couple of thoughts on cooking up a good book. Sometimes, a writer needs to add or subtract some ingredients to make an older recipe fresh and tasty. I'm feeling your pain on Lady Bells like dang and whoah. I'm doing the same thing with SOTW. It's hard, but I've come to the conclusion that sometimes you need to stir fry a "dish" even if the recipe calls for it to be baked at 350 degrees for a couple of months.

I'm loving the "dish" you've got going on your own blog. I'll be over there later today when I can sit and savour this instalment.

Off to do errands and then writing for me! TGIF, Chicks!

Janet said...

I hear ya on making the "...older recipe fresh and tasty." Working on it - your chopping 8 chapters and pushing forward on SOTW inspires me (so don't quit).

I'm glad you're liking Mickey's Story. Looking forward to your comments over there.

And, might I add, I love your snippet from Faerie Fate. Anyone looking for a quick read, head over to Silver's Blog for a fabulous snippet.

TGIF, Silver, TGIF!

Vince said...

Hi Janet:

Your recipe approach is very insightful. I also use a cooking analogy in my book on romance, WIP, but I take a very different approach.

I see the novel as a seven-course meal in which each course has to taste good. Indeed, every bite has to taste good. The meal cannot be judged by the last course alone. The meal should be an ongoing culinary experience.

This analogy is designed to get the writer to focus on the ‘reading experience’ and not the novel as a finished product. A cook wants every bite to taste good. A writer should make every page ‘taste’ good. To do this the author should reward the reader in many ways on each page.

Cooking works very well as a writing analogy – even from many different perspectives. You cooked up a very enjoyable post. Thanks.


Karyn Good said...

I would add a sprinkle of confidence to the soup. Hopefully the amount we put into the soup increases with each batch.

Great post today, Janet. I'm off to see what Mickey's up to!

Janet said...

Thanks, Vince - cooking lends itself very well for analogies to most things (including life). I tried very hard to find a good cooking idiom, but the only one I could remember was "Too many cooks spoil the broth" - HEY, that works with regards to critiquing. Too many opinions and you'll lose the gist of your story, you'll lose YOUR story!

Anyway - love your analogy. Yours is more about the book - whereas I was trying to go with the overall aspect of writing. Again, showing that cooking works well in both scenerios. And a very good point to remember, Vince - we should be concerned with the reader, how they come at the story, what they'll take away.

Of course, with all this cooking, I'm hungry :)

Janet said...

Confidence - perfect addition, Karyn. And, yes, I hope that ingredient increases as we move forward in our careers. Just as I hope doubt diminishes :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

I do believe you can come up with suitable comparisons between writing and just about anything, eh Janet? And you do them so well.

I don't see conflict in your ingredients... or would that be considered a spice?

Oh BTW - I have a cook book collection, too. It started as a child when I received the hard cover Carnation Fun to Cook Book for kids. Some of my oldest are:
- 1925 Mrs Caldwell's Cook Book
- 1932 Five Roses: A Guide to Good Cooking
- 1932 edn The Purity Cook-book (Western Canada Flour Mills)
- 1932 edn Purity Cook Book
as well as numerous phamplets and magazines.

Enjoyed your post.

Vince said...

Hi Karyn:

The idea of ‘confidence’ is intriguing.

It would be very interesting to see how the same scene would be written by someone with confidence and someone without confidence.

Are there safe ways to write? Are there bold ways to write?

I never thought of this. How does having confidence change the words on the page?

I think this would make a whole post topic. Any takers?


Janet said...

Thanks, Anita - sometimes my brain gets tired thinking up comparisons to writing. Glad this one worked.

Conflict - excellent spice, not only with each of the stories we write, but also within ourselves as we navigate our way around this career. Perhaps a spice, or perhaps a full ingredient to be added with the characters/plot/setting.

Your cookbook collection sounds marvelous. Mine is not so 'historical' - the oldest one I have is - my Go To Bible for all things cookery.

Janet said...

I think confidence comes down to "yep, this works" versus "Um, I like this, but I'm not entirely sure it works - it breaks the rules - it borders on telling not showing, etc. As we move forward in our career, confidence increases and makes us better at trusting our gut - and maybe not tweaking as much as we do when we are not yet published.

Again, an overall look at writing versus an actual novel.

BTW - not taking on the challenge. Not enough confidence ;)

connie said...


I have some real oldies, in fact a whole shelf of pre 1920 cookbooks. The best though are The Woman At Home 1894 and Dr Chase's last Receipt Book and Personal Physician 1861. That one is a dandy! It includes cures for cancer, how to tar poles and shear sheep. There is a toilet dept, dairy dept, mechanical dept, bee keeping and how to raise children - oh yes, and also food recipes

This made me think that dredging our minds for old things we know, to add to the soup - not reviving the perished parsnips as much as shaking the ideas like mummified macaroni and nutmeg, and adding them in a whole new way. Am I making sense? e.g. when in college, I joined the militia to pay my fees, books et al. My experiences in camp included shoes two sizes two small, blisters, a call from somebody's wife (I didn't even know the guy) and the temper of a sgt major whose waxed mustache could cut glass. Somewhere in there are feelings, people, absurdity - any of which could be thought upon and reborn to be part of the bones of a book - even a Medieval, whereas, normally, they are just memories that make me giggle. Old experiences twisted, turned and re-used.

A tablespoon of tobasco (getting angry with myself) gets me up and at 'em when I have mentally said 'to hell with the soup'.

Really reaching, but there you go.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
How about a liberal serving of research in your soup? Just as we need to research facts for our writing to lend authenticity, we also research recipes to find ones that use our favorite ingredients. I've been doing a lot of research lately, both for my current WIP and ironically enough for recipes. I've been looking for dishes low in cholestrol, fat and salt that don't taste like cardboard. Any suggestions?


Janet said...

Wow, Connie, your cookbook collection sounds wonderful. I had a chance to look at one of those old "Farmer's Wives Encyclopedia" type cookbooks a while ago. They really do cover everything - the one I saw also advised on how to castrate a bull!!

Yep, our memories, our lives, our emotions definitely need to be added to the 'soup'. I think that's what makes every writer unique. We could all start with the same premise, characters, setting, even plot, but all of us would concoct a different story. That's what I love about cooking (and writing) versus baking. There is no precision. Bring to it what you will, a little bit of knowledge and you'll have something worth consuming :)

Tabasco will get you up and at 'em!!

Janet said...

Research is a perfect edition to our 'soup'. No matter what we write, historical or contemporary, research is important in order to give our story authenticity! And a layer that enhances the plot, characters and setting. Thanks for the addition, Jana.

Might I suggest the Looney Spoons series? Canadian cookbook authors who have made it their mission to create tasty, good-for-you meals. They even have their own TV show on The Food Channel! I have all three cookbooks and love, love, love them. From appies to soup to entrees, to desserts - they do it all on a lower fat, lower sodium platform. Check them out from the library first to see if it's something that would interest you :)