Friday, March 9, 2012

Cooking up a Good Story

*** Warning: the following post contains a lot of gratuitous food porn! ***

The other day I was perusing Twitter, trying valiantly not to get sucked in for too long while taking a break from editing, when I saw a few tweets by literary agent Victoria Marini ‏ (@LitAgentMarini), comparing book revisions to baking cookies.  She's one of many literary agents I follow, and often has great advice.  This is what she said:

"Revision is not just addressing some comments in the margin. It's a lengthy, pensive process in which you look at your WHOLE work again.  If you baked cookies and I said 'they're too light,' you wouldn't just add flour to the same left over dough. You'd make a new batch!  Most of the recipe would stay the same, but you'd need to revisit the whole process to get the new batch right."

Great advice!

Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs (with wholesome nutritious filberts). © Ryan Schierling

And it got me thinking, which is rarely a good idea.  It also got me hungry, which is never a good idea, but we'll get to that later on.  Anyway, so many parallels between cooking and writing raced through my mind at reading that, I decided to share them here.  Enjoy.  And wipe that drool from your bottom lip.

Sweet potato fries w/ gravy and over-easy egg. © Julie Munroe

Don't leave it in the oven too long.  Nobody likes that hunk of meat that's been baking for an hour too long, and they certainly won't like your overcooked novel.  It's overdone, dry, and nasty.  If it drags on and on, it's going to bog down, and your readers will put it down at some point.  And if it's dragged on long enough, they're not going to pick it back up because it isn't interesting anymore.  It doesn't matter if you have complex, flawed, and interesting characters, or if your plot is wildly unpredictable and original, if it drags on too long, readers will lose interest.  Cut it, trim it, season it, and pull it out of the oven at precisely the right time.  Do it right, and you have a mouthwatering dish that readers won't be able to put down until they scrape the last crumbs and morsels from the plate.

Sauerbraten, with semmelknodel and rotkohl. © Ryan Schierling

Know the proper measurements.  A dash is not a tablespoon.  A pinch will not suffice when the recipe calls for a cup.  There are limits, but you can get away with adding more or less of something, or using a suitable substitute.  To a point.  Similarly, an author can usually get away with an extra 20,000 words in an epic fantasy or science fiction story because of the world building, but when writing young adult, there is a much shorter word-count constraint to work with.  There are general word count boundaries that are accepted by most in the industry, and they vary by genre.  Words are not like bacon; they're like onions.  There is a limit on the amount you can add to a story and still keep it palatable.  Know the boundaries for the genre you're writing, and the lengths a literary agency or publishing house accepts; they're not always the same.

Root vegetable-creamed linguini with bacon and parsley. © Ryan Schierling

Use the right ingredients.  There have been many great pieces of advice on creating realistic, believable characters, such as this helpful blog post by literary agent Vickie Motter (@Vickie_Motter).  Thing is, you have to put in the ingredients best suited to the dish (or character) you're creating.  If you're making steak in an upscale New York restaurant, you're not going to use a low grade chuck or round cut.  Conversely, if you're going for the flavors and textures of a greasy soup kitchen meal, you're not going to use cuts of Filet Mignon or Châteaubriand.  It doesn't matter what you're making, but you have to use the ingredients that give it exactly the flavor, smell, and texture you're looking for.  The ingredients for tacos come in a wide variety of shapes and tastes, but in the end, they still make tacos.

Crock pot chicken tinga tacos. © Ryan Schierling

Create a brand and cater to that specific consumer base.  In a similar thought to the one above, a customer must be able to associate a specific product with a producer.  People go to In-N-Out Burger, expecting delicious, no-frills burgers 'n fries, and that's what they find there.  People buy a William Gibson novel expecting edgy, futuristic science fiction, and that's what he delivers.  We want to get what we expect.  If we don't know what to expect from something, we're more hesitant, especially if obtaining it costs us our hard-earned money.  Creating a brand, and sticking to it, allows readers to readily identify whether or not they'll be interested in the book.  And a brand can't be a smorgasbord.  Trying to please all of the people all of the time never really works, especially with readers.  It's possible to write in several genres, especially if they're closely related, but many authors who switch genres, or write in more than one, do so under a different pseudonym for a reason.

Now I give you everything. © Ryan Schierling

Understand and cater to known tastes.  There's a reason why certain foods are paired with specific beers and wines: the flavors work well together, complement each other.  The same principle applies to books.  There is a reason why things fall into categories like genres and sub-genres, and why those genres are standard lengths, with standard elements in them.  A strong female main character works well in women's fiction.  A larger-than-life hero works well in fantasy and stories with heavily action-oriented plots.  For the same reasons lemon and rosemary go well with baked salmon, ornery dwarfs and mysterious elves go well with high fantasy.  It just works.  You don't always have to stick with the tried and true, as you'll see below, but stereotypes and standards exist for a reason.  Understanding that will help you create an original story that still falls with the bounds of consumer taste.

Cedar-planked Alaskan King salmon, ready for some heat. © Ryan Schierling

Stick with a recipe.  People also want to know what they're getting when they buy something.  If people are in the mood for prawns or crayfish, they're not going to look in the steak section of the menu to find it, and if they're in the mood for science fiction, they're not going to browse through romance books looking for it.  Understanding elements common to the genre you're writing and sticking with them will create an identifiable, quantifiable work, something that can easily find its proper place on a bookshelf.  If you identify your story as "more of a literary science fiction mystery, but with elements of romance and chick lit", a publisher is going to have a devil of a time finding a place on a bookshelf for it.  And guess what - if they can't find a place for it on the shelf, readers won't find it there either.

Crawdads, no. Crayfish, no. Crawfish, yes. Pot pie. © Ryan Schierling

Experiment, but do so correctly.  Although I'm quite the adventurous foodie, I'm not an especially good cook.  I experiment far too much, and usually my creations (using that term loosely here) end up mangled and often garbage-bound.  Luckily I don't have to be.  The wife is a supremely talented cook, and we eat quite well in the House of Dalar.  It's good to push the envelope, though, try things a little outside the box.  That's what gives us those new, exciting, discoveries that suddenly become the next big trend everyone tries frantically to copy before it becomes old.  That's a great thing in both writing and food.  But you gotta do it right.  You can't just add ingredients without knowing what they'll do to a dish, and you can't play around with story elements, grammar, and perspective without knowing what you're doing either.  A little tweak, a dash of daring, and suddenly your creation is refreshingly new and original.  You can play around with a baked potato, but the main ingredient is still going to be a potato.

Potato pavé w/ bison Texas red chili and smoked cheddar. © Ryan Schierling

Phew, that's a lot of food porn.  You had forewarning.  And now you're hungry; I know I am.  I'm going to saunter down to the kitchen to wrangle up something to eat.  And you can saunter on over to Foie Gras Hot Dog and find the recipes where all these wonderful photos came from.  It's run by my friends Julie and Ryan, a couple of great cooks, and adventurous foodies themselves.  You can also follow them on Twitter (@FoieGrasHotDog).

Papaquiles (the imaginary friend of chilaquiles). © Ryan Schierling

By the way, one of their uniquely crafted recipes - Papaquiles - is being served by the Today Food crew's food truck at this year's SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas, which starts today and runs through March 18th.  If you're in the area, be sure to check it out!

Grilled peach cobbler. © Ryan Schierling

Oh, and dessert.  Can't forget dessert.


  1. It's bad enough I'm addicted to the Food Network, but writing advice with food photos? omg, I can't take it!

    Thanks for sharing these tips, but now I hate you for making me hungry! lol

  2. I'll refrain from steepling my fingers together in glee and uttering a maniacal laugh and respond by simply saying thank you, glad you enjoyed it.