Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Writing Style and Cooking Style

Last Friday, while I was holed up without a car and unable to post a blog post, Storyfix had a great post that sang to me as a writer - and a foodie!

A little background:

Larry Brooks, the author of the blog and the book Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, often writes about the importance of pre-planning and organizing for a professionally successful story.  For a long time, he was pretty harsh on "organic" or "pantser" (write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants) writers.  Recently, he's gone soft - just a little - on this type of writer… which I just so happen to classify myself as.

Larry's frequent main point - which admittedly is often what causes me to skim his articles rather than read them in depth - is that a successful story requires planning, outlining, and some very specific pieces (gone on in more detail with his new book.)

His recent post had him admit he would soften his stance on it, and gave a great food analogy.  You should go read the post, definitely.  I'm just taking it a little further.

What's cooking?

Having been an at-home cook and a "foodie" before I even knew the term, I'm all for food analogies!  I was using them to critique my friends before it was considered cool. (Adjusts "hipster" glasses…)  For example, I'd say that cutting down story length was like simmering down a pan sauce: it needed to be done to heighten the flavor, consistency, and overall experience.  Left watery, it was, well, watery and not as powerful.  Simmer down that word count!

Of course, as cooks, the Husband-of-Awesome and I, rarely follow recipes.  Or, we use recipes as jumping boards.  I've included a few recipes in this blog and in newsletters… but almost all have a list of potential substitutions and alternate ingredients and at least one "eyeball" measurement.

That said, both my husband and I have been cooking long enough to know the basics of cooking.  We're constantly researching.  Research, for us, is fun.  It's everything from watching Food TV to my article writing to just following links about food.  We know what makes a good _______, what are the base ingredients that cannot be substituted or ignored, and how the finished product should taste, look, feel, sound, smell.  There's also the knowledge of what ingredients don't play well together and how cooking and mixing style can affect the final product (this latter lesson is mostly thanks to Alton Brown.)

So, even though we often "pants" our dinners ("Oh, crap, I have to cook… what's in the fridge, freezer and counter?" ), there's a certain amount of planning and structure involved below the surface. 

It's that compilation of knowledge that lets us create meals that seem entirely out-of-the-blue and pulled from our arses when, in reality, there's a lot of subconscious planning going on.  "I've got chicken thighs or tenders… I can cook tenders into a stir fry or pasta.  I am short on veggies, so we'll go with pasta… and make the sauce from leftover pumpkin… which goes with red peppers, onions, and/or spinach with…" and so on.

And the longer we cook, the more we learn, the better the planning becomes - even as it is less and less obvious.

Yum!  A story!

I've been writing stories for a good 20+ years of my life.  And yes, I have the notes and drafts to prove it.  (No, you can't read them.  Would you really want to try a recipe I "created" when I was 13???  No, no you don't.  Trust me.)

My writing has evolved much like my cooking.  Even in my teens, I was a voracious reader, reasonably intelligent and liked research; I had a decent idea of what things made me like a story and how a story developed.  Most of my work, even then, had a pretty clear structure (it read like pulp high fantasy and/or space opera) with a beginning, middle, and end.  I didn't realize there was any structure, though.  I just wanted to see what kind of adventures my characters would find while they saved the world (or galaxy) from [insert generic and minimally appropriate Big Bad Guy].

As I learned more about writing from further reading, taking classes, being active in writing groups, and just writing, I improved and had more structure.

When I said that the planning for a meal I cook becomes less and less obvious, I mean it's less obvious to a casual observer.

If I'm talking kitchen shop with you, then you can see the skeleton and structure of the things I cook.

The same goes for writing.  My current novel, Kelpie (only 3 or so more scenes to write!), is the most planned thing I've written.  However, I've only written a small percentage of the planning.  And, unless I'm talking to you about the steps and research, it's not really evident that I did a lot of planning.  (If you saw me writing at the coffeeshop, deli, or studio, you'd see metyping as if I were flying by the seat of my pants.)

While I did do a lot of planning for A Silent Starsong, which I'm shopping around now, my first draft ended up being a draft for not just the final version of Starsong, but also a whole lot of unnecessary background and a whole lot of a potential sequel.  I did a lot of writing to discover things… and then a WHOLE LOT of editing to fix it afterwards.

And I didn't realize I was doing that.

The few "discovery" scenes I've written for Kelpie are ones that I'm pretty aware are written for my own purposes and will likely get chopped or significantly cut in the next set of revisions.

Compare that to the 800 handwritten notebook pages of my first "novel" written as an adult about 10 years ago.  It's a high fantasy where group of characters have to save the world kinda piece.  If I ever decide to salvage it, it will have to be a trilogy, and it will have to be at least 90% rewritten - completely.  I did an awful lot of "discovery" writing that worked great for brainstorming characters and all the potential routes they could take to defeat their fallen god nemesis.  (Yes, it sounds very generic to me right now, too.)

As a writer, I needed to go through that experimental "organic" period of discovering what I could do.  As a home cook, I had to go through my crazy "let's see if these foods work together!" period that led to many less-than-stellar meals, if not one or two that had to be fed directly to the garbage bin.  In both cases, also, there will be foods and pieces of stories that will be created mainly for discovery purposes; because I know what I know now, some of that may even remain in a final product.  As both a writer and a cook, I have clocked in a lot of time researching, learning, and planning for final products.  In fact, the planning and research come as second nature, so it still "feels" like I'm writing or cooking by the seat of my pants. 

And I have no desire to change that; I love the adventure of it!

In my head, though, the subconscious is fiddling with structure and filling in blanks faster than I can record.  In the creation of the food or the story, though, it's the spark of imagination and creativity that drives those planning gears.

So, if you are an organic writer and/or cook by the seat of your pants, take a moment and consider:  Might there be a hint of planning below the surface based on your experience… that you don't realize is going on?


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