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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Dated

July 24, 2010 at 3:32 am (Setting, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Reading over some of my favourite childhood stories I realised that a lot of them have dated themselves terribly. I also note this when watching Buffy or other television shows that I loved in highschool. Just every now and then a line comes out and you just wince – wow! That’s dated.

I didn’t need to worry about this so much when writing Death’s Daughter because I set it in an entirely fantasy world that doesn’t directly link to any of Earth’s time periods. There were no references to current events or trends or anything else that would make it feel old within a few years and that was one less thing for me to worry about. Not so much with my current WIP.

Once again I’ve set it entirely in a fantasy world but this time there is a cross over element and one of my characters does come from modern Earth. How modern? Well, he is insisting on carrying his phone everywhere even though he hasn’t a chance at getting reception because the thought of leaving his phone behind is all but paralysing. What is this going to do for the story in terms of it getting dated?

Given the story and the fact that none of the other characters have current Earth knowledge I’m not throwing one-liners in referencing current events although he does occasionally reference television shows and notable characters. I’m resisting the urge to label his phone as any particular type because that would certainly date the story fairly quickly. His clothes are pretty basic and would fit most of the last twenty – thirty years and hopefully fashion isn’t going to completely change in the next ten.

What I’ve realised is that having any connection to the real world is adding a whole other set of problems to writing that I didn’t have to deal with previously and I’m walking a fine line between leaving it fairly non-specific as to when he was living on Earth in order to prevent the story being dated and just not giving the reader enough details to hold on to the story.

So I am seeking advice from those of you who have considered this previously. Do you worry about your stories getting dated and how do you deal with this?

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Reflections on the Week That was 14

February 7, 2010 at 5:30 am (Weekly Review) (, , , , , , , , , , )

This week has been crazy busy and I know some of my posts have been pretty short. Still, it has been a great week and I am pleased to share some interesting links for the week.

Just reminding everyone about the series of guest posts I will be running from Feb 15. The title of this series is Novel Elements and I have asked writers (published or unpublished) to share what they think the most important element of a novel is and why. So far I have only been emailed a few responses but I know that other people were interested in participating. If you want to be a part of this series please email me your answer (try to keep it to about 200 words). The email is cassandra (dot) jade (dot) author (at) gmail (dot) com.  Looking forward to reading some of these responses and I can’t wait to share them with my readers. Also remember to send a brief bio, a link to your blog, and a picture (the picture isn’t essential but it is nice).

I hope everyone had a great week and here are the links.

Recommended Read:

Big Beat From Badsville shares a fantastic post on how to turn something from Noir to Cosy in 12 easy stages. Well worth a read.

My posts for the week:

Following on from ‘Oh Sock’ – Response to Elspeth Antonelli’s post about missing socks.

5 Heroic Traits – what makes a hero?

Things that go thump in the night – wondering why so many characters over react to mundane noises and why the ignore things that might be important.

Best Movie Endings – What makes a great end to a movie?

A Banquet for the Characters – I sat down my latest cast and watched the chaos unfold. I still don’t know what my characters like to eat.

Old Friends or New – Do you call on the protagonists old friends or do they meet somebody new?

Other Posts on Writing:

LawrenceEz talks about using flash-backs and repressed memories.

Richard W Scott discusses why writing what you know might be a myth.

Margot Kinberg looks at characters bearing grudges and motivation.

Katie Ganshert explores using hooks at the end of chapters to keep people reading.

The Old Silly shares some advice on moron dialogue – more importantly, he gives examples on how to improve the dialogue.

Elizabeth Spann Craig discusses the bad guys and how to make your antagonist interesting.

DNBRD explores Steampunk and provides some great examples of authors from the genre.

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A Banquet for the Characters

February 2, 2010 at 5:26 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , )

My characters don’t eat meals anywhere near often enough in my stories. I guess nothing overly interesting happens while they are eating because it doesn’t seem to be a focus point. However, they do eat frequently while walking or just have a snack and I’ve noticed that almost all of my characters are addicted to sugar. Particularly chocolate.

So I’ve decided to sit all my characters that I am currently trying to work with down and to have a banquet.

The problem being that as soon as the first course (chicken and corn soup with sweet bread) was served I had two rival factions throwing the bread at each other from across the room and about a dozen minor altercations breaking out at various tables. Clearly sitting all my characters down and feeding them wasn’t going to work if I actually wanted to find out what food they would eat.

Having called security to run all these rampant characters out of the room I decided to just have a few of the main characters at the table with very strong security forces lining the walls and a clear sign reading  ‘no violence’ on the table. They didn’t like it but they did try the soup.

The main antagonist of the story told me that soup was not suitable food for someone of her station and the bread was far too dry. After one mouthful she pushed it aside with a sniff.

Most of the other characters ate it and when asked their opinion shrugged. They didn’t really care. They had other things to worry about than food.

That might be why food does not get a lot of time in my books. The characters have a few other concerns.

How do you work with food? Do you worry about it? Is it important to your story?

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Writing Lessons From Reading Traci Harding

January 27, 2010 at 5:39 am (writing lessons) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve finally come to Traci Harding.  I would have done her first but unfortunately whenever I talk to people who read very few of them have read Traci Harding and that is a shame. She became my absolute favourite author of all time when I was in high school and even though I have not particularly liked her later work, I still think her Ancient Future Trilogy is the best fantasy trilogy I have ever read.

What did I love about the Ancient Future Trilogy?

  • The protagonist.  Tori Alexander is an amazing female protagonist. She is confident, strong (she’s a black belt), smart (multiple university degrees), funny, romantic and yet flawed in that she is overly emotional, stubborn and extremely proud. As a high school student she really appealed because her flaws were kind of endearing and she was just an incredible person to read about. Here is a girl who can get zapped through time (multiple times) and always lands on her feet and wins the heart of the really, really hunky guy who just happens to be a King. She’s also an Australian who just happens to be travelling around England when she goes time travelling,
  • The setting – A time travel fantasy where they go back to the days of knights and kings but they don’t end up in Camelot. There are a lot of references to the kingdom, there are parallels, but this is not an Arthurian legend and it was nice to read something a little bit different because at the time it seemed like every second fantasy book I read was about Arthur and friends.
  • The supporting cast – All the characters in this story are kind of interesting. The fact that you meet several incarnations of the same soul in several different time zones means you see how the soul has developed and grown overtime and you get a real insight into each of the characters by the time we reach the end of the trilogy. There are only a couple of characters who seem to get sidelined and really leave you wanting to know more about them.
  • The time travel – I usually really dislike time travel stories because they tie themselves in knots and you are always left wondering how it works its way out. Traci Harding create a time travel story that for once kind of makes sense though by the third book she’s kind of skating over the details very quickly and her explanations may not hold up under scientific analysis but there aren’t any glaring inconsistencies just jumping out and hitting you in the face and disrupting the storyline.
  • The ending – and I will not ruin the end of the trilogy for anyone but if you want to experience an end of the world scenario that is truly incredible, this is the trilogy for you.

Now, even though it is my favourite trilogy of all time and I fully recommend reading it to anyone who likes fantasy, adventure, romance, spirituality, strong female characters, etc, etc, I do have to acknowledge some of the issues with the trilogy.

  • The language – I do not care what Tori Alexander studied at university you are never going to convince me that anyone living in modern Australia can speak ancient Welsh proficiently enough to communicate with people when travelling back in time. Admittedly, the story would kind of be awful if Tori couldn’t speak to anyone (mostly because she would have been killed within minutes of arriving back in time) but with so much magic and spells flying around later in the story, I would have bought translation spell as an explanation before linguistic genius.
  • Repetition – The reader understands fairly quickly that underpinning this relatively simple story about a girl travelling in time there is this deep spiritual story about mastering your soul and acceptance of others view points and natural energy flows and all of these other ideas which are working well together to create a rich and interesting story. However the same concepts are explained multiple ways throughout the trilogy and at times you want to cut the character off and tell them “I already got that in the last book”. Actually, you don’t notice the repetition so much the first time you read the trilogy but the sixth or seventh time it starts to become a bit more obvious.
  • The second book – It is always the second book of a trilogy that feels like it is marking time and filling in details and the second book of this trilogy is no different. Tori gets to visit Atlantis, which is kind of cool, except that the people in Atlantis are so spiritual and sweet and dull you are kind of happy when everything starts falling apart.

So, writing lessons learned from reading Traci Harding:

  1. Have an incredible protagonist – one that really draws people into the story. They don’t have to be perfect and they don’t always have to make the right decision but they need to be interesting and appealing.
  2. Put the extra work into the supporting characters. The reader will appreciate it.
  3. If writing a trilogy, spend the extra time on the second book and figure out how to avoid the curse of the middle book. It may not be possible but try anyway.

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Finding Time vs Making Time

November 3, 2009 at 6:51 am (Thoughts on Writing) (, , , )

2009 has been an extremely busy year for me, not just as a writer.  Everytime I think I’m getting a grip on things Life comes along and gives me a hard shove just to let me know that I am not as in control as I would like to be.  Of course that is reality for most people most of the time.

I think for me it was the flu that really threw my rhythm out entirely.  Before the flu I was blogging regularly, almost every day, checking various social networks, writing constantly, editing projects, sending out queries, and keeping up with my day job just fine.  Then I got sick.  The kind of sick that meant I was in bed and didn’t really know what time of day it was for a couple of weeks and then when I was on my feet I had so much work waiting for me it was a never ending battle just to keep the pile from getting bigger.

I’m finally starting to get things back together, and just as well.  The end of the school year is coming up and that means piles of marking and reporting and meetings and all of those final jobs that absolutely have to be done or the world will end.  Hopefully not literally.  I’ve also just gotten my first novel, “Death’s Daughter”, back from its first round of editing.  It isn’t tragic but there is a lot of work to be done.  In addition, I am about to be moved for work and so I have to start tidying up all my loose ends here, packing up the house and just get ready for a major upheaval.

With all of this going on I could simply sit back and say I haven’t the time.  Really, if I waited until I found a spare moment to edit or pull things together, I wouldn’t be getting anywhere fast.  Time does not magically appear before you with a neon sign saying ‘use me to write’ or ‘I could get the dishes done’.  Time has never sat around waiting to be found.

I can however make time.  No, I only have 24 hours in the day and I am spending at least 8 of those sleeping and a further 8 (at least) at work.  It is however amazing what you can do with an hour if you have properly planned and prepared.

The reason an hour can go by so quick is many people spend the first fifteen just getting their brain geared towards whatever it is they end up doing, and they turn off ten minutes before the end thinking, oh I’m about to be out of time anyway.  25 minutes of absolute dead time.  If you also count lack of organisation and running around putting things together and finding things that are needed to do whatever it is you are trying to do, you could have as few as fifteen minutes of actual useful working time.

Right now I am a little time stressed and starting the blog up again was something I thought over very carefully.  I didn’t want to stick my toe into the water and decide it was too much effort.  I planned and thought about it and realised that I could make the blog work and sorted out the how and when.  I can get some writing done and I can keep up with all the other demands on my time with a little preparation and organisation.  If occasionally I slip up, one or two late nights or early mornings won’t kill me.

I would like to know how everyone else deals with the busy demands upon them.  If you have any great advice on how to fit writing into a busy schedule, please share it.

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