In honor of NaNo and November’s holiday, I decided to compare writing to cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
Just like people have different cooking styles, writers approach their craft with varying degrees of preparation.
At one end of the spectrum are the Plotters. Plotters prepare everything up front. They follow the recipes, measure the ingredients and clean up as they go.
At the other end are the Pantsers (i.e. Seat of your Pants). That’s my strategy, or perhaps lack of strategy. Pantsers cook as they go–throw in a pinch of this, a glop of that, taste, adjust, and serve once you have enough inspired (or edible) offerings.
Regardless of your style, I think every author goes through four basic steps as they cook up their masterpieces.
1. Decide what to serve.
First things first – plan your menu. You make up a list of everything you want to include–keeping in mind what your family likes to eat, how much food to prepare, what dishes are required, and what new things you want to try.
That’s the easy part…the fun part, at least for me. This is when you get to be creative, living in your imaginary world. You start to sketch out a plot based on what your audience likes, what elements are required and include any new twists you hope will keep things interesting.
At this stage, there are no right or wrong answers. If you tell your favorite Aunt Lynn you’re serving beets and she suggests yams instead, maybe you throw in some yams.
2. Research your topic.
Are you going to stick to family favorites or add a new flavor to the stuffing? How many pies do you need for 12 people, what is the difference between shortening and butter, how do you use a Dutch over? This is when you hit Google, call your mom, ask for suggestions on Facebook or talk to friends.
Writers usually spend an awful lot of time on the internet, researching the most bizarre subjects–how long does it take to bleed to death, how many periods in a lacrosse game (it’s 4 quarters, in case you care), and what is the proper way to address a duke in 19th century England?
Even if you’re “writing what you know,” chances are you will need to research something. In my latest book, my characters are a nutritionist and a state trooper. I needed to know how their schedules would conflict over holidays. Luckily, through friends of a friend, I found people who could answer my questions. The trick in this stage is to not spend too much time researching and forget to write.
3. Gather your ingredients and get to work.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, you begin preparations. Will you special order a free-range turkey or a frozen Butterball? Get boxed stuffing or use fresh bread? Do you have enough time and space to cook it all? Once you’ve figured all that out, it’s time to get cooking! Your mission is to create a well-balanced, delicious meal.
Write, write, write. Once you’ve drafted an outline and blurped out the important scenes, the hard part begins. You have to look at everything you’ve written and decide if it all fits together. What’s missing? Are the relationships believable, does the pacing seem right, is the dialogue natural?
After all your work, you may find you’ve got some great scenes, but they don’t advance the plot. Too many desserts and not enough vegetables. It’s painful, but this is when you have to be ruthless and hit that delete button. Your primary goal is to create a satisfying treat for your readers.
4. Time to clean up (Ugh)
After weeks of preparation, you’ve cooked an amazing meal. You set it on the table, family digs in, and hopefully the response is positive. You are savoring that last bite of pumpkin pie, when you turn around and realize the kitchen looks like it was hit by a level four tornado.
It’s time to clean up your manuscript. If you thought writing a book was hard–editing it is killer. The Find and Replace function is an author’s best friend and most dreaded enemy. You’ll discover your manuscript is littered with filler words, echoes and poor punctuation.
Words like just, look, and that will leap out at you by the hundreds. The same phrase appears over and over in a paragraph, mocking your ridiculously limited vocabulary. He smiled at her, she smiled back and they smiled again. Couldn’t you have thrown in a smirk, a grin or an eye twinkle?
Don’t worry. You’ll get through it. At some point, you’ll look up and discover everything is in its proper place. Giving the counters a final swipe, you’ll heave a contented sigh, and shut off the lights…until next year.
Alleigh Burrow’s first book, Dare to Love, includes a duke, marquis and a few earls. Her second manuscript, Catching a Pixie, needed the state trooper’s holiday schedule. And for some reason, her current WIP includes extensive lacrosse references. To date, none of her characters have bled to death, but there’s always a next time.