Why Writing a Novel Is Like Baking A Cake

August 13, 2010 at 5:37 am (Planning, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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.

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How Do You Research That?

December 15, 2009 at 5:15 am (drafting) (, , , , )

Research is one of the essential tools of any writer, regardless of what they are writing.  Direct observation of people and places is one form of research that we all undertake every day but for most of us, this is only the beginning of the lengthy researching process.

I write fantasy and I don’t actually mind too much when someone tells me that fantasy isn’t real writing.  Mostly because when someone tells me that it tells me more about the person than about what I am writing.  I do mind when people tell me that fantasy writing must be easy because ‘you can just make stuff up’.  I can just make stuff up?  Why didn’t someone tell me that sooner?

Admittedly I do have a lot of leeway with facts and even after the research process if I haven’t come across something suitable I can create something new, but I have to do it in such a way that people believe it.  That means there are basic rules and preconceptions that have to be met or the reader is just going to roll their eyes.  How do I know what rules and preconceptions there are? I research.

My reference collection is a bit on the odd side but it has steadily been growing over the years.  Lots of books on mythology, all kinds of mythology.  The latest addition was a book on Japanese fairy tales.  This gives me a chance to look at similarities between mythical creatures across the world as well as the differences.  Dragons turn up in every single mythology but the differences are extraordinary.  So, when I say there is a dragon in front of my protagonist, people instantly get the image they are most familiar with, unless I give them more information to go on and I best not say it is a wyrm if it isn’t (learnt that lesson the hard way – one critique of a short story ended up being a five page list of types of dragons and why mine didn’t fit into any of them).

Mythological creatures however is only a tiny fraction of the research.  The online research is generally extensive.  If you have a knight carrying a sword, what kind of sword is he carrying?  Does he swing it? Thrust with it? Stab?  Could he chop through a log with it or would that just dent the blade?  Some readers are extremely picky about their swords.  To me, a sword is a long shiny thing you hit stuff with.  I don’t focus on sword fights in my stories but being fantasy, it is fairly inevitable that swords will come into them, even if just in passing.  I don’t want to make a passing comment and have a reader throw the book down in disgust and then send me a lengthy email explaining why I haven’t got a clue.

Then we have styles of dress and construction and various landscapes and on and on and on the research goes. It is a good thing I am curious by nature and that I like keeping trivia files of random facts.  It means that usually I have some information on a given topic close at hand but other times I need to go a little further in my research.

How do you go about your research and how much do you do before writing the story?

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