Okay – before you jump on the attack I am going to counter this soonish by explaining why writing a novel is not like baking a cake.
There are many reasons why writing a novel is in fact like baking a cake:
1. There are certain ingredients that must be present or it will not work. You can argue that there are eggless/flourless and everything-else-less cakes out there and some of these are very, very good. However, for the most part, leaving out critical ingredients in a cake or a novel will just get you into trouble and have your taster (reader) wondering what went wrong.
2. The better you plan it out before beginning, the better the process goes. This is true for me, I know.When baking a cake I do a lot of pre-organisation and pull all the ingredients out and line them up on the bench. I even measure most of it out into various cups and bowls and have it all just sitting and waiting to be added. Far too many times I’ve entered the cooking process and go to the cupboard to get out the… Forgot to buy it. Now I have to go to the shop and get some more, meanwhile the oven is heating, and I forgot the shop is already shut. Plus, I know what sort of cake I’m making if I plan it out. I don’t get mid-way through and think I’d like to add some apple but then I’ll have to add more flour because the apple will make it too moist and I’ll probably add too much flour and then I’ll have to add a dash more milk. This all relates to novel writing in that I can plan out my characters, their motivations and goals out before the story so I won’t get too many surprises during the writing. I can make sure I’ve researched any vital plot points and have that research at the ready. I also know what sort of story I want it to be. So I’m not getting midway through and thinking, wouldn’t this be better if I just went back and rewrote the whole thing (though sometimes the plan fails and despite all the careful thought we do have to go back, and back again).
3. It takes time. Okay, cake time to novel time are really not comparable but they both take time and rushing the process makes for a bad cake/novel. It takes as much time as it takes.
4. The right tools help get the job done faster and better. In cakes this means whisks, pans, bowls and ovens that actually heat evenly and consistently. With writing this means at least a basic understanding of language and probably a word processing program of some sort that includes some basic editing assistance (such as spell check). The writer’s tool kit also includes their knowledge of the genre and plot conventions and all the other things you need to write the story.
5. The proof is in the pudding. The taster of the cake can tell you if the cake is good. The reader of the story will tell you if the novel is good. Yes, you can pre-taste (read and evaluate yourself) but you are probably not the best judge. Like with cooking you will either be too harsh (I’m a terrible cook) or far too generous in your evaluation (its awesome and only burnt on two sides…).
There you have it. Five reasons why writing a novel is like baking a cake.
I’m not using it and I haven’t referred to it – but a plan exists. Surely that counts for something.
In case you are wondering what I am talking about, it is the old to plan or not to plan argument in writing. As always, I outline, know where I want to go, and then dutifully ignore any of it and write whatever anyway. From the number of unfinished projects I have stacking up, this may not be the most effective method, but it works for me. I don’t want to lock myself in if I’m not feeling the characters lead me in a certain direction. And I don’t want to be endlessly worried that they haven’t progressed as neatly from point a to point b as I would have liked.
I love to write. I love words. If I can eventually tidy them up enough to make a story, great. If not, I’ll have enjoyed the writing anyway and maybe at some future time I’ll return to the story and figure it all out.
That’s kind of what’s happened at the moment.
I came across a fairly old story (in fact I don’t remember when I started it). I didn’t even have it on my computer any more. I only had the paper copy I printed out. It wasn’t finished and as I was reading it I realised I really wanted to know where this story ended. Only I didn’t remember.
Fortunately I also printed out the plan and included it in the file.
Unfortunately having just read the first act of the story, I realised why I abandoned it. The plan didn’t make any sense. There were entire sub-plots that were clearly leading to X but just didn’t appear in the plan at all. The main character was clearly not motivated by D but by P and those two characters over there were as likely to be conspiring as a spider with a fly. I’d had a plan but the way I’d written that first act just made the plan entirely irrelevant. The story was better than the original plan and the characters a great deal more interesting but it made the second act almost impossible to write without an entire overhaul of the over all goal of the story.
So now I need to figure out where the story should be going and how I’m going to get it there and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get it written. I’m not going to commit myself to it but I have a strong feeling that I’m going to spend quite a number of sleepless nights thinking about it in the near future.
Lua Fowles on Bowl of Oranges wrote a post about how to annoy a rookie writer which was an excellent read. I particularly like her second point where someone suggests to her that she should write about their friend who is cool. I love her response to that.
A couple of days ago I was ‘offered’ a kind story suggestion from someone. They’d made a comment about time travel, or gaps in time, or something that I hadn’t particularly listened to. Anyway, the next thing I know they are telling me I can use this for an idea in my next story.
They thought they were being helpful but I considered it this way. If I go to a restaurant with a mixed bag of groceries, march into the kitchen and drop them on the work bench before announcing, “You can use these to make a meal”, am I being helpful or annoying?
At the time I simply pointed out that time travel wasn’t really my thing because it leant itself far more to science fiction than to fantasy (though it is used in fantasy and quite well but I don’t really want to deal with overcoming paradoxes and the like so I’ll leave time travel to others for now). I additionally pointed out that I’m in the middle of a project at the moment and won’t be thinking about a next story for several months at least with the project I’m working on and projects I already have written but need to do some serious editing work on.
I didn’t get annoyed by this. They thought it was a great idea and maybe it had been a great idea (I probably should listen better to people). They weren’t being condescending or rude or anything like that. They just weren’t very helpful.
I’m the cook and I already went out and found my ingredients after pouring through all the recipes I might have considered. I’ve already done the prep work and cut up all the ingredients and half of them are in the pot cooking. And having gone through the bag that I was delivered I don’t even know a recipe I can cook with that particular combination of food stuffs so I’m really unlikely to use them.
The problem here was that as a non-writer this person didn’t really get the time and dedication required to work on an idea. To them, here is an idea, write the story, done. The thought that I wasn’t looking for new ideas and didn’t really want that idea hadn’t really occurred to him.
Do people do this to you? How do you deal with ‘helpful’ suggestions?
I visited a blog called the Life and Laughs of me the other day and came across a post entitled, Rules for Writing Fiction. It is well worth a read if for nothing else than to get you thinking about whether you have any rules you follow consistently when writing fiction.
Personally, I disagreed with rule 8 on this list.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Personally I like being kept in suspense as a reader, as long as the revelation is worth the wait.
That said, number 6 – be a sadist – is an excellent rule. Just because you feel connected to your protagonist and have spent so much time on them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t heap ruin and pain upon them. It makes for a far more interesting story.
So what are your rules for writing fiction?
I ran across a post by Kyle on his blog “Exercise in Futility” called Writing Blind and really started thinking. Kyle asks:
How much should I know about my story before sitting down to start on a draft? Should I have the entire plot mapped out, with all the main plot points, or should I just go with it, and write whatever comes to mind?
And really, we all ask that question from time to time. We get an idea, get really excited and maybe want to leap straight into writing, and some people have to start writing straight away or they lose that spark, that fire, whatever it is that drives them to write the idea down. Others know from experience that they have to have at least an outline, while others still won’t consider drafting without detailed chapter by chapter break downs and six hundred colour coded notes on each character.
I’ve come to understand my own writing pattern fairly well and ever I still wonder whether I could do it better. I don’t plan too much. Mostly because I don’t look at any of my notes once I start writing the first draft. I just don’t. I close my eyes and type and when I feel my fingers slowing I read what I’ve written and sometimes start writing again and sometimes read blogs or tweets or go watch television or do some other work until I feel ready to write again.
However I never start a draft without having written out an outline and character profiles and concept maps. I have a notebook with all of these things in it. I just don’t use them once I’m writing.
My theory is it is a safety net. It’s like when I used to play the clarinet. I would practise a piece over and over again. I could play it perfectly. It could play it without ever actually looking at the music and I knew this because half the time I would forget to turn the page of the music. However, if someone took the music away I suddenly would freeze and wouldn’t be able to tell you what the first note was. The music was my safety net. I didn’t need it, but it made me feel like I knew what I was doing and so I was fine.
My note book with my plans is my safety net. If I get really, really stuck on something and I desperately want to finish it (though usually when I’m that stuck it is because what I’m working on is rubbish) I can go back and see where I was meant to be going and where I’ve gone wrong. That and I usually remember most of what I’ve written down in the book anyway and so I’m following the plan and just adding bits to it and tweaking it as I go.
And that works for me.
The advice I read many time, given to me by many of the bloggers out there, when I first started trying to write for something more than my own enjoyment was that every writer has to find what works for them. Read what others do and then try some of the different suggestions but don’t feel like there is some ‘right’ way to accomplish the task.
Incidentally, I would love to hear what is working for other people at the moment because I’m always looking for new ideas.
I was recently reading Elizabeth Spann Craig’s post on Secrets and it really got me thinking because I’m currently weaving a few of these through my most recent story (which was going well and then I rewrote the beginning and then I got busy with work and so is now in the plan and replan phase but I think will work out once I have the time to put some serious work into it – wow, that was a long explainer).
Anyway, I really enjoyed reading Elizabeth’s post and found it really useful because she includes a list of what secret’s are good for in a story and that helped me focus on why I was trying to put the secret into the story in the first place. Once I figured out the purpose of having characters keep secrets from one another and why they were necessary to the story it all suddenly fell into place and now I’m wishing I had the time to really write.
Secrets are one of my favourite plot devices. I love it when we, as the reader, know more about what is going on than any one particular character and I also love it when we’re kept in the dark but once the secret is revealed all the little hints and clues fall into place. What I don’t like is when the story tangles itself into an unmanageable mess and one of the characters suddenly says “oh, don’t worry. I haven’t told you…” That is very much like throwing a ghost in at the last minute just to solve all the problems and wrap it up nicely when there is nothing earlier in the story to support this sudden revelation.
Following on from Elizabeth’s post I started thinking about what sort of characters keep secrets. We all know that in real life some people just couldn’t keep a secret if their life depended on it and others like to throw smug looks around like the cat that got the cream while they wait for someone to ask them what they know. They have to share but they have to be prompted to do so. Then there are those who file the secret away and simply get on about their business. Even when asked to share they simply dismiss it as unimportant and move on. Then there are those who share it but only with their best of friends, because they have to tell someone but they don’t really want to reveal the secret. Of course, as trustworthy as their friends are if they are the type that can’t keep a secret that secret is going to get out.
Can your characters keep a secret and what would they keep hidden?
Elspeth Antonelli recently had a post titled “Oh sock, where art thou” in which she asked why socks go missing and where do they go? She provides a number of possible theories and it got me thinking about all the things around us that we can’t explain that we could use for a story.
Now obviously I’m not about to launch a new project entitled the Slimy Socks of Saturn Strike Again. Mostly because I don’t like that much alliteration in a title and secondly, because missing socks would probably get old quickly and can you imagine trying to edit something like that. But…
Other things go missing. Not just socks. Rings, remotes, the last chocolate bar in the fridge, keys, documents, emails. These things just disappear. You can stand behind someone and watch them type in your email address (correctly), press send and it confirms that it has been sent and that email will still never appear in anyone’s inbox. It is gone. Lost in – well, who knows.
Socks by themselves may not make a story however the mystery of things disappearing has made many stories. Trolls, gremlins, brownies, and all manner of other mystical nuisance has been blamed for theft of objects and pranks on people. So have sink holes in time and space and all sorts of other things.
What if someone is making these things happen? Now we have a bad guy.
I love questions where I can’t be expected to know the real answer. It leave my mind open to come up with the most absurd. The absurd is always more fun than the logical and as neither answer can be proven or disproven, you might as well have fun.
Thanks Elspeth for such a thought provoking post and now I have to go and try to find the missing partner to my favourite pair of socks.
I’ve always hated that expression – mostly because it gets me wondering why I was put in the box to begin with. Yet most of the time our thoughts are boxed in and closed off. They follow predictable paths they’ve gone over before, never looking beyond the obvious. I don’t like boxes. I have a thought bubble but it is just as restrictive (though prettier because it shimmers all different colours when exposed to sunlight).
As writers it is important that we recognise our bubbles and boxes. If we were to write only what we know then we would never leave our bubbles. Our stories would also get very samey very quickly and we would hopefully get bored with writing it and move on. Our characters would also be very much for muchness and have similar motivations and moral values and thought processes because their writer and creator didn’t stop to think outside of their comfort zone.
How can we think outside our bubble?
- Talk to people – all sort of people and find out what they think about things and why.
- Read everything. Doesn’t matter if you are interested in it or not. You may just pick up an idea or two that you had never considered.
- Practise empathising. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to really think how they might see the world. Try to put your preconceptions aside and really feel as though you had lived a different life.
- Sometimes it helps just to turn everything upside down. Whatever you think, write the opposite. You can tone it down later but just practise being the complete opposite of yourself. It helps to start you thinking about all the possibilities in-between.
How do you start thinking outside your bubble/box?
I was recently wondering about why I had so many notebooks filled with quotes and so many second hand books of quotes lying around. It seemed an odd thing to collect really given I don’t use quotes in my fiction writing because as a general rule my fiction is not set on Earth so having a Mark Twain quote stuck in the middle of the story would probably be a very silly thing to do.
It actually occurred to me while trying to track down one particular quote book. A book full of humorous quotes and one that I thought might help me inspire an idea for a character who wasn’t serious, boring or flat. I finally found the quote book and flipped through it at random finally resting on a Benjamin Franklin quote: “It is ill-mannered to silence a fool, and cruelty to let him go on.” Not particularly inspiring me in the way I had hoped but it did give me a different character I had been planning and from there I got stuck into some more outlining.
So I guess the reason I have all these quotes lying around is that they do get me thinking. They get me thinking about people – both the people who are described by the quotes and the person who said it. They get me thinking about different situations and issues. Sometimes they just give me a break when I really need one.
Do you collect quotes and do they help you with your writing?
Just leaving you with my favourite quote (at the moment at least). “The world of reality has limits; the world of imagination has none” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.