Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Recipe for (mis)Adventure

I like to cook.  I like to write.  These two passions have a lot in common.  When I cook, occasionally I follow a recipe, most of the time I just throw the ingredients together willy-nilly.  When that happens the results range from good, to very good, to not worth the energy it takes to throw the meal away.  So it goes with my writing.  My tendency is to write like I cook--by the seat of my pants.  I'm thinking it may be time to change my approach to one of these passions.  And it isn't my cooking.

When I cook by the seat of my pants the basic assumption is worst case scenario is this: the meal is awful, in which case I call Dominoes and no one starves.  The risks are the ingredients, the time I spend cooking and the time I spend cleaning up.  When I write that way, the risks are essentially the same if you allow that the ingredients are my creative juices.  The key difference involves the question of time.  It takes me thirty-minutes to an hour to perfect or ruin a meal.  Clean-up is twenty minutes depending on the pans I use.  It takes me a year (or more) to cook a novel.  And the clean-up?  Well, I'm learning the hard way that it can take years to recover from a book that doesn't sell, or in keeping with the analogy:  from writing a book that no one wants to eat.
When I cook and stick with the recipe, two things happen.  For one, the process is streamlined because I have all the ingredients I need in the proper quantities.  The meal gets on the table faster and no one goes hungry.  The other thing that happens is the finished product is reliably good, sometimes amazing.  But rarely awful.  And nothing is more heartbreaking in a kitchen than cleaning up a mess from a meal that no one ate.  On the other hand the rewards of seat-of-the-pants cooking are potentially profound.  You never get the same meal twice, and no one can say, "This was better the last time you made it."
George R.R. Martin employs a different analogy, using architects and gardeners.  One is meticulous with every stage and step defined, the other favors the randomness and discovery of nature.  Since I am neither an architect nor a gardener, but I do like to cook and eat--I'll call this my recipe for (mis)adventure.  Without going into the gory details, I find myself in the kitchen cleaning up the writing mess of a less than satisfactory meal.  So this time around I am following the recipe.  I have outlined the heck out of my next book.  Every plot point is mapped, every beat of tension in acts I, II and III is identified, every character arc is defined.  I know I'm going to miss the delicious surprises that come with writing by the seat of my pants, but I'm hoping that the end product will be just as good, maybe even better.

So the table is set.  I'm at the stove, apron on and spatula in hand.  The garlic is starting to brown.
Dinner will be served in, oh, six months.


Jordan Dane said...

What a great analogy! I love this. I'm a hybrid pantser/plotter and a cook who only follows the essence of a recipe. This post sounded like me. Get out of my head, Stephen. It's too crowded in there.

I will be curious how the outlining will go for see if you stray from the path if a bauble glitters in the distance and catches your eye. A part of me hopes you keep an eye out for the glitter.

Sechin Tower said...

This is a great way to look at writing. I'm not much of a chef myself (I haven't added any recipes to my repertoire since shortly after I graduated college), but the way you put it makes sense and was very fun to read, too!

And now I'm hungry!