• Matt Davies

Cooking the books*


I woke up this morning thinking,** as I often do, that I must get back to work on my current manuscript-in-progress. It’s been far too long between sessions. In my defence (aka: the current excuse), my head has been struck in This Thing of Darkness: its release in November, the launch event, the post-launch promotion, the worrying about whether anyone is actually going to buy the book (plus I went overseas for three weeks before Christmas). Not having posted on this blog for a few months was also on my mind. My original plan was to blog monthly, but that’s fallen severely by the wayside.

So I went for a walk, listening to a podcast about writing as I’m apt to do. I do it to get inspired, to get motivated and to learn. When I got home I was ready to jump back into my work-in-progress – a YA written from two perspectives, a girl and a guy, who meet, connect, but then are separated by circumstances out of their control and then have to find their way back to each other.***

The best laid plans

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I’m, by and large, a planner. I’ve planned a lot of this current manuscript. But it occurred to me about six weeks ago that the journey I had plotted for my female character was not going to work. It would have worked on a story level, but it wouldn't have been fresh or different. It would have been, although emotionally impactful (in my head, at least), too predictable. So I decided to change tack. When I decided this towards the end of November, I started writing from the point I was up to in the manuscript with this new direction now firmly in mind.

When I sat down to write this morning after my walk, I thought that I should begin by cleaning up the beginning of the manuscript so I have something to take to my writing group. I tend to write novels in bits and pieces at the beginning of the process, starting with the scenes that are the most vivid in my mind (in fact, the closing scene was one of the first I wrote), and then fill in the gaps later. But there’s not much point taking sections of disjointed text to my writing group, so I decided that I should flesh out what I’ve got, starting from page one, so I have something more cohesive to show them.

So I started reading from the beginning to get myself back into the story (with the plan to polish and shine as I went). But I quickly realised that the new direction I’d created for my female character no longer worked for the beginning sections of the manuscript. The character she is at the start of the novel could not develop into the character that I’ve now decided she must become. So that led to a few questions:

  • Who is she at the beginning? (effecting the biggest change would mean she would virtually have to be the opposite of what she becomes at the end)

  • How can I foreshadow what’s to come so it’s not a complete (an unrealistic) surprise to the reader? (there has to be some suggestion, I believe, at the beginning of the story about what’s to come, even if the reader doesn’t consciously pick up on it during the first read).

Distil, distil, distil

It’s always helpful, I think, in dealing with any of these bigger, overarching issues in a manuscript, to refine as much as possible. To make what seems complicated into something simple. The best way to do this is to summarise what you’re trying to do into a single phrase or theme. This could be a 'log line' (a one-sentence summary of the plot or of a character arc) or a theme (such as 'Blood is thicker than water').

In the podcasts I listen to, writers often get asked about their process. And that leads me to wonder about my own because, to me, it seems so haphazard. But this morning, while thinking about the way I would get my character from one way of being to the other, I realised that hitting the pause button, going back to theme, is what I always do. I take a break to distil so I can get some clarity about what I’m shooting for. What is the crux of what I’m trying to say?

Finally, the cooking connection

Going through this process this morning got me thinking about the way I do things and how I might explain it to another writer.

I thought of the analogy of baking a cake.**** For a cake to really work, it needs a few things going for it:

  • the right ingredients

  • in the right quantities

  • blended together in the right way

  • baked for the right amount of time.

So I stopped looking at my work in progress and starting writing this post instead (see how I constantly find excuses to avoid writing? I’m a procrastinator – this will be the theme of a future post no doubt).

The right ingredients

To be classed as a cake, it has to have certain ingredients – usually some kind of flour (or almond meal), something wet like butter or oil, something to bind it (like egg), something sweet (cakes are usually sweet) and often some kind of rising agent like self-raising flour or baking soda.

Novels have basics too – characters, plot, setting. The basic always need to be there.

Some cooks approach their food preparation in a spirit of trial and error. You just keep chucking in ingredients, tasting, adding more of something or another until they’re satisfied with the taste. But you can’t do that with cakes. It simply won’t work. It will come out flat or emerge from the oven looking full and wonderful but then sink in the middle moments later.

The right quantities

If you add too much sugar to the mixing bowl, your cake’s going to be too sweet. The same goes for a novel. Too much sentimentality could give you a cavity. But even when it comes to the basics – character, plot and setting – the quantities you use of each will often determine the style of book. Literary fiction is usually heavier on character and setting. Genre novels often favour plot.

Every writer has to strike the balance that works for them, and for the project they’re working on. The most important thing is to be aware of it. Crime fiction readers, for example, generally need a strong plot to hold their interest.

The blending together

It’s often said that for a book to be great it only needs two components: a good story, well told. In the cake analogy, the good story is the right ingredients, the well told is the blending together. The telling is particularly important for mystery writers where details have to be strategically placed throughout the novel to keep the reader’s interest – enough so they want to keep reading but not too much that they guess the ending.

It’s possible for a book to do well sales-wise if it has a good story but is not particularly well told (think The Da Vinci Code). But a book won’t sell well if all it has going for it is beautiful prose (well told). Something needs to happen. There needs to be a plot.

The right amount of time

I generally enjoy heavy cakes more than I do light ones (although I can’t go past a fluffy sponge cake with passionfruit icing). Dense cakes generally take longer to cook. The same goes for novels. The heavier the content, the longer you need to spend getting it right. Light books have their place, and some writers have a knack for churning them out one after the other but, in the vast majority of cases, these stories are not going to stand the test of the time. They will not stay with readers long after they close the book. For me, I need to think about a book for a long time. I need to ruminate on its themes and I need to live with the characters for a bit. And, most importantly, I need to put a manuscript aside for a few months after it’s finished to get it out of my head. This separation gives me a better chance of looking at it more objectively next time I open it. You can’t really do that with cake, however. Unless you freeze it, I guess.

Standing out from the crowd

But these are the basics. To make your cake stand out, you need to add unique, unexpected ingredients. But even these surprise ingredients need to be carefully chosen.

I’m all for experimentation, but the point of it is to keep going back to the drawing board until you have something that works, not pulling it out of the oven half-baked and serving it up to readers as is. (See what I did there? With the cake motifs?) You can’t just chuck in everything you like and expect it to come together. All the ingredients might taste great on their own, but not when they’re all tossed in arbitrarily. Exercise some restraint. If a particular ingredient doesn’t work, or is overpowering, use less or take it out altogether (which, granted, is much easier to do in a Word document than it is in a mixing bowl).

Back to the recipe book

So, for my current work-in-progress, I have to go back to square one. Well, not that far I guess, but I have to rethink my female protagonist and get a handle on her character again from this new perspective. This is precisely why I’m a planner – to escape this. To avoid getting halfway through a manuscript, realising that it’s not working (or that there’s a better way in this case) and having to start again. In this instance, my planning hasn’t worked that well, although I haven’t committed too many words to paper at this stage, just a few key scenes here and there.

The best laid plans can sometimes come unstuck. Coincidently, I’ve just realised, this is the overarching theme of my current manuscript.

Wow. Theme really does work away in the subconscious.

* This isn’t the greatest title for this post. The title, on its own, probably gives the wrong impression, as if the post has something to do with being underhanded or fraudulent in some way (BTW I love book titles that have a dual meaning or can be interpreted in a number ways, but that’s a subject for another post.) But the image helps, don’t you think? It makes you think of cooking in terms baking and then the idea of books is introduced. Maybe this post has something to do with baking while writing? Or writing cookbooks? No, neither of those things. Sorry.

** I’ve heard the advice that you should never start a story with the character waking up. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s considered a cliché? But waking up, the dawn of a new day, signifies a new beginning, which I reckon is a great way to start a story. (But only do it once. Don’t start every book that way because readers will soon get jack of it.)

*** A love story is never just a love story, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s important for me that my characters are on their own internal journey separate from the story that binds them. I guess that’s one of the hallmarks of YA – internal journeys – and one of the reasons why I’m so attracted to writing it.

**** Comparing baking a cake with some other life endeavour is not new. But it’s a simple comparison that everyone can relate to. Cooking a soufflé might be a little more original, but most people can’t relate to that. They might know it’s hard to get right, because that’s what they’ve heard, but that’s as far as it would go. The cake thing works better here.