Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing Is Like A Soufflé…

…get one thing wrong, and the whole thing falls into disaster.

Of course, that statement is subjective. What if that one thing is minor? Or what if it looks a total disaster, but still tastes really good? Well, it’s all relative to what the reader can ignore, and what he can’t. And the best way to make the reader ignore those mistakes is to strike a good balance among all the ingredients that go into a story.

But, how do you do that?

First, you need to know the ingredients, or the elements that make up a story. Once you have everything you need, you can go about measuring them – but instead of using measuring cups and spoons, you need a balance scale. And it’s probably the most complex balance scale your imagination can conjure up. Take each element, dole them out onto the scale such that everything stays in balance, then mix and bake at 350 degrees. :)

Using the balance scale gives the writer direction without telling him what to do. I.E., without giving him a formula to follow. If your story calls for major amounts of plot twists, then include them. Just don’t forget to add enough characterization, pacing, research, etc. such that the story is still in balance. Otherwise your story soufflé is going to come out lopsided.

Okay, you say. But how do you know if your story is in balance?

That’s where objectivity comes in. I know, I know. I’ve gone on about this before, but it’s such an important concept to me that it’s in everything I do related to writing. This is no different. Critique groups are wonderful for balance-checking, too. Especially well-rounded groups where everyone has different strengths. A fresh pair of eyes can do wonders.

Once you’ve measured, mixed, and baked, then you can set your story aside to cool. When you come back to “taste” it, it’ll be easier to see if the mixture is right, or if something is off. Figuring out what is off, however, can be really, really hard, and sometimes requires an experienced palate. Use your critique groups to help out there.

Sorry about all the baking analogies. In case the guitar cake wasn’t a dead giveaway, I’m a big lover of baking, and this is how my brain processes things. If you're not a baker, my apologies. :)


Marcia said...

Both baking and pregnancy work really well in explaining the process of writing a book.

I think if you create a character people care about and give him/her a premise they're willing to accept, most any other error is forgivable as long as the other elements you mention are strong enough to compensate. But we can't afford too many mistakes, or all the elements will seem weakened, at least a little.

A crit group is great, and I have two. But I think the cool-off period helps even more.

Liana Brooks said...

Hey- I tried baking my manuscript at 350 and all I got was singed pages. What am I doing wrong?

Jacqui said...

...but at the end of a bad day souffle-making, at least you have a bowl-full of chocolate.

Tabitha said...

Marcia - I think you're right about the character and premise. That's what I look for, anyway. If the character isn't there, I can't get in to the book. There are others who can look over that and really get in to the plot, etc. This business is just so subjective!! :)

Just_Me - LOL! The secret is in the mixing. Gently fold, and you should be fine. :)

Jacqui - Exactly. At the end of a bad writing day, all you have is a headache from banging your head against the wall. Um...I'll take chocolate any day. :)

Mary Witzl said...

(I'm taking a book packing break now, writing under the radar, as it were...)

I think this analogy really works. I'm a baker, and one of my greatest sins is removing things from the oven too soon -- or trying to tip cakes out of the oven before they've cooled off. Guess what one of my biggest sins in writing is? Thinking I'm finished when I'm not! I never made the comparison before, but this is truly illuminating.

Another way baking and writing a book compare is when you consider that everyone's palate is different. Someone who loves lemon meringue pie may not appreciate a German chocolate cake, however beautifully it is prepared.

PJ Hoover said...

I'm so in agreement about the cool off period. After all, you can't even taste the angel food cake until it's had time to hang upside down for a while (guess what we baked the other day).
And my critique group is invaluable. For chapter by chapter reviews and one time though all at once big thoughts!
Now, about that souffle...

Angela Ackerman said...

There are many, many recipes I have that taste better the second day. I think writing is like this--you need that resting time for it to truly rise to its potential. I don't understand folks who pound away day after day on the same project, leaping from the first draft to the second to the third with no break.

I see a lot of stories where writers do two swings at it as well--one draft, one revision and then send it off, no resting time. I have yet to see one that is ready after a single 'whole novel' revision. It makes me sad, because often these pieces have great potential, if only the writer would have a little more patience.

Anne Spollen said...

This is a great analogy...yes, I bake, so maybe that's why I get it.
And cooling off...
So many times I've read something I've written and thought (smugly),
"This is perfect; no need to revise it." But then the phone rings, the dog gets out, the kids fight - and I have no choice but to leave it on my desk where it promptly gets buried. Then I find it and say "Yikes - why didn't I see this?" It's like a brain fog, some process that's necessary to go through so you can get clear sentences. It's really odd, and one of those things I think only writers get.

Tabitha said...

Mary - I used to have the same problem! :) But now, I've gone the other extreme and tend to leave things in too long. One of these days, I'll find a happy balance. :) I LOVE the palate analogy. Very fitting. :)

PJ - The 'cool off' period is necessary for me. I need it in order to gather my objectivity. And you're so right that things just don't taste right unless they've properly cooled off, especially angel food cake. YUM!! :) That kind of cake is heavenly if you top it with a mixture of whipped cream and cherry pie filling. **drooling**

Angela - Very true! I know some spicy Indian recipes that taste amazing after the spices have had time to sit and sort of marinate. Yum!! :) I used to be a pound-out-a-first-draft kind of writer, but I've learned the hard way that it just doesn't work. :)

Anne - Another vote for the cooling off period! :) There are lots of things about this business that only writers get. I've tried explaining some of it to non-writers, and they just look at me funny. So I stopped trying. :) I count myself lucky that I've been able to connect to so many of you writers out there. :)

Unknown said...

Great analogy--perfect :)

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Extending the metaphor:

Then when you're a really expert baker, you can start breaking the rules, trying exotic flavor combinations and unusual shapes.

Jenn Hubbard

Tabitha said...

Beth - thanks!! :)

Jenn - Nice! Love the extension. You really do need some level of experience before you can start experimenting with flavors. And even a genius baker creates a total disaster at times...they're just not afraid to try new things. :)

Mary Witzl said...

I like what liquidambar says about breaking the rules. This is true in art, too: if you know them perfectly well, you also know when and how you can break them.

Tabitha said...

Yeah, I like it too. :) Knowing the rules and knowing when to break them is key.

I've seen this concept spark many a conversation as to just when it's acceptable to start breaking those rules. Newbies see experienced authors doing it, then they do it. Most often, it doesn't work out because they're kind of feeling their way around in the dark.

But when is it okay to start experimenting? I think it's ALWAYS okay to experiment, no matter how well or how little you know the rules. I think experimenting can help you learn the rules, actually. In baking, if you leave out the eggs in cookies, then you'll learn that they'll bake, but will be flat, dense blobs. And you've just learned what *doesn't* work.

I think writers can do the same kind of thing, but we need our objectivity and our critique groups for taste-testing. :) I think that, in trying to find what works, we first need to learn a whole bunch of "what doesn't work." :)

What do you all think?