Monday, May 11, 2009

Baking a Layer, Manuscript

I’ve been hearing writers talk about writing a manuscript in layers. Lady Glamis at the Innocent Flower did some great posts on this, and Jacqui Robbins just put the skeleton of her novel together.

My most recent WIP, a middle grade that I started seven years ago, is putting itself together in a similar way. Except mine is more like baking and decorating a cake.

When you set out to bake a cake, first you need to make sure you have the right ingredients: eggs, flour, sugar, butter, etc. Without the right ingredients, the cake won’t turn out right. Once you have your ingredients, you mix and bake them until you have fluffy, golden layers of yummy.

The same thing is true with a story. When you set out to write one, you need the right ingredients: characters, plot, conflict, tension, voice, etc. It has taken me seven years to find the right ingredients and bake them in my head until everything solidified into something that made sense. Now, I’m working on the next step: assembly.

When baking a layer cake, once it’s baked you have to let it cool. If you put frosting on a hot cake, the cake will be too fragile and the frosting will pull it apart. If you wait until it’s warm (not hot), then the cake won’t fall apart. However, the frosting might melt and ooze off the cake. Then you have to go back and fix it, and the result isn’t always pretty. : ) So, you need to wait until the cake is completely cool, and then both the cake and frosting will mesh well.

My current WIP has been exactly like this. I had to let this story bake in my head for seven years, and then cool off completely before I could start putting it together on paper. I’m not sure why this story took so long to solidify in my head, but it did. And now, I’m working on gluing the layers together with frosting.

To put cake layers together, it requires a liberal amount of frosting on the bottom layer, then lining up the top layer so it’s even with the bottom. It’s not too difficult, nor has it been difficult to put my story together on paper. I think that’s because it’s been baking and cooling for so long. : ) But when it comes to the decorating, that’s a different story.

Decorating a cake requires yet another layer of frosting on top, but this is harder than the layer you put between the cakes. The outside layer must look smooth, and if you’re not careful then cake crumbs can get swept up into the frosting. That looks terrible, especially with chocolate cake. It requires care, precision, and concentration. Frosting can lump too high in places, or it can be too thin. To get it right, you have to take a step back and look at it objectively.

My story is the same. Once I finish putting it all together, then I have to go back over it and add the pieces that I know are missing, look for the thin areas I didn’t see the first time around, and trim the areas that are too lumpy.

This creates a solid base for the next step: decoration, or, in my story, word choice. This is probably the hardest step.

For cake decoration, I’m going to be hunched over this cake for an hour or two, squeezing drops of frosting in just the right places to create the greatest visual effect. When I’m done, my eyes are crossed and my back aches, but I’m thrilled with the end result. Which makes it worth all that effort.

It’s no different with my story. When I reach this point, I agonize over every single word I’ve used. If I let myself get caught up in word choice earlier, then I might have wiped out all that work as I finished putting the different layers of foundation in place, so I wait until the end to do this. And then, I tackle my story by hunching over it for days or weeks on end. I look at every sentence placement, word usage, and paragraph location. By the time I’m done, I’m cross-eyed and my hand is cramping like the dickens. But I’m thrilled with the end result, so all that work is worth the effort.

But I'm not there yet. In fact, I'm still putting my manuscript together, but I should be putting on the outside layer of frosting soon. Perhaps by the end of the month...we'll see. :)

I hope this hasn’t sounded silly. I just equate writing to things I understand, and cakes are one of those things. :)


Unknown said...

It doesn't sound silly--it makes perfect sense!

And, more importantly--I think it shows growth and skill as a writer. When I first started, I thought I could mix everything in a bowl, slap it into the oven, and take it out an hour later fully assembled, decorated, and ready to go! In reality, I've learned, it really does take the time and effort to make it something worthy.

Robyn Campbell said...

I like the cake analogy. Cakes are yummy and so are great stories. And like Beth, when I started this writing thing, I too thought my cake would be done in less time than it said in the recipe.

Now I KNOW, it takes time and patience to bake a great cake or a great book. Great post. :)

Christina Farley said...

This makes perfect sense. I just can't wait until I put the candles on mine!

Eric said...

This is an interesting analogy, and nicely put. Thanks for going through it with us.

Elana Johnson said...

This is fantastic. Have you seen that youtube video by Jackson Pierce where she compares writing to making cakes? It is great. She makes something like 12 cakes for the filming. You should watch it! It goes perfectly with this and was the first thing I thought of.

C.R. Evers said...

Very well put! Bake on! :0)

Jacqui said...

Makes sense to me. Plus, I love cake.

Another similarity is that with writing and baking, you can't just fix one small thing without starting all over again, in a sense, and adjusting or re-mixing all the other ingredients.

PJ Hoover said...

I love your cake analogy! It sounds yummy and inspires me all at once!

Totally agree on the time and effort. I've learned more patience and discipline in the last five years than in my entire life.

cleemckenzie said...

Sounds like a book worth diving into. You made me very hungry!

Danyelle L. said...

Not silly at all! I love your analogy. I don't know much about cake decorating, but it so fits with writing. Great post, and good luck on your cake--er, story. :D

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Cakes rock! Layers rock! I love this comparison. It's spot on. Cake sounds yummy. So does your writing. :)

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Works for me. So well written.

Remember these lyrics? Someone left the cake out in the rain. And I don't think that I can take it cause it took so long to back it and I'll never have that recipe again...

Angela said...

Way to go getting organized and getting that cake in order!

Tabitha said...

Just got back from an afternoon at the zoo with three five-year-old boys. Let's just say I got my exercise in for the day. :)

I'm so glad this analogy didn't sound silly to you all. It made perfect sense to me, but that doesn't mean it will translate... :)

Beth - yeah, I've noticed the same thing with my writing over the past ten years or so. When I wrote my first novel, it took two months and I thought I was done. HA! :)

Robyn - thanks! I'm seeing a trend writer = quick cake. :) Good thing we learn. :)

Christina - be sure to let us know when you do so we can celebrate with you! :)

Eric - thanks for hanging around to read it! And I'm so glad it made sense. Not everyone is a baker, so I wasn't sure if people were going to look at me funny. Well, funnier than usual. :)

ElanaJ - I haven't seen it, but now I simply must!! I'm off to search for it as soon as I'm done here. :) If I find it, I'll have to post the link.

Christy - LOL!! You betcha!!

Jacqui - cake is pretty awesome, isn't it? And boy do you have that start-over thing right. Everything in writing is so connected that there's no such thing as an isolated fix, at least when it comes to ingredients. Makes our lives harder, but the end result is usually something tastier. :)

PJ - patience is an absolute must with writing. Not only does the industry move at a glacial pace, but also you have to revisit your work so many times that even the most patient person is ready to scream. :) Glad to hear you've got that part down. :)

Lee - if you're ever in Chicago, consider yourself invited to a yummy piece of cake. :)

Danyelle - thanks! My story is going about the same as the cake I made for my grandmother yesterday. It was the worst looking cake I've ever made, but it was so tasty that the whole family ate it and I had no leftovers. My story currently looks terrible, but there's good stuff underneath. I just have to keep working. :)

Glam - your posts on layers were fabulous! I love layers. I don't think I could manage all that needs to go into a story without layers. It puts things into manageable chunks, and my brain won't explode from trying to keep track of it all at once. :)

Elizabeth - thanks! :) I had to look up the lyrics, but it's so fitting! Thanks for sharing them. :)

Tabitha said...

Thanks, Angela!! It's a sticky, messy business, but someone's got to do it. :)

Bish Denham said...

This is an excellent metaphore! I have several novels that are in various stages of cake making; from the gathering of ingredients, to the cooling off, to getting ready to be frosted.

Mary Witzl said...

Your metaphor works for me too, but the difference is that once the story confection has been perfectly spun, it can be consumed again and again.

There are so many similarities. Once you've finished your cake and set it out for consumption, that's what everyone sees; your reputation rests on the finished product, not what you intended to bake, but failed to. And of course, not everyone likes the same kind of cake...