Sunday, May 22, 2011

Organic—it’s not just for veggies anymore

A couple years ago, I was accepted to the C.I.A. Not the Central Intelligence Agency (how cool would that be!?), but the nom-nom one. The Culinary Institute of America. I grew up in a family of master chefs and food has always been one of my passions—but so has fiction. Even as I filled out the application, I was torn. Then, when I met with the counselor and she told me the main reason I was accepted was the essay I wrote, well, I saw that as a sign. I passed on the spot and threw myself into writing.

Obviously, I still love to cook. Just because I’ve chosen the author path, doesn’t mean I’ve forsaken my roots. Special occasions, holidays—apple season is like Applepiepocalypse around here. I have nightmares about being chased through the streets by an enormous peeler flanked by jars of cinnamon wearing gang colors.

This says a lot about how my mind works…

But anyway, every once in awhile, someone will ask me for a recipe. This is a problem. Why? Because I don’t follow recipes. And when I try to write ingredients down as I’m cooking, it leads to disaster.

I’ve come to realize my writing works the same way. Everyone has their own process. Something unique that works for them. Mine is, well, messy. Organic. Some of my more organized writer friends look at me like I’ve got two heads, a tail and am wearing a pair of flashing neon chaps. But for me, it works.

Matter of fact, it’s the only thing that works.

I’ve tried to do it the other way. Outlines and character bio sheets. Research and plotting. All that planning ahead trips me up. I think it’s because I’m putting too much thought into it. Instead of just going with my muse and letting the story and characters (or recipe) take shape, I’m obsessing over the details. Did I get the voice right? Is that really enough sugar?

I think of the first draft as the ingredient gathering stage. Start with a concept (dish) and build from there. For me, it’s usually the hook that pops first. Sprinkle in some world building and a kick ass character or two, and you’re ready to rock.

Once you’ve got everything together, you move on to the revisions (cooking). Revisions are kind of like making Risotto. If you over toast the rice (story) the outcome is going to be less flavorable. Going through and adding layer by layer to your story is like adding the broth to the rice as it cooks. Slowly absorbing flavor.

Then, when you think it might be time to yank that puppy from the burner, you need to do a taste test. This is where betas and CPs come in. You send your work out, they sample it and tell you what it needs and if they think you’ve overcooked anything. Luckily, with writing it’s much easier to fix an over written scene than a burned batch of biscotti and an oven fire.

Yeah… Um, that’s a totally different post.

So come out and share your process. Do you follow an outline? Maybe you just jot down a few notes and see where they go. Or are you like me? Throw things into the pot and let the chips—chocolate preferably—fall where they may.

28 comments:

Aubrie said...

What a great post! I love the analogy between recipes and outlines in writing. I always have to follow recipes because I have no cooking talent. But I don't always write with an outline.

Very interesting thoughts, Jus!

Christa said...

I'm a complete pantser and I cook the same way. If I read a recipe, I inevitably don't have the right ingredients so I swap out (white wine works just as well as chicken broth). I have tried outlines too and end up feeling like a big dork when I do them bc I never use them. So glad I'm not the only one who does this!!!

Katie McGarry said...

Wow - great post Jus! I have to admit - I'm a plotter, both in writing and in cooking. I admire you for being able to cook. I sort of suck at it. I also admire you for being able to write organically. It just goes to show there is more than one way to skim an apple (sorry couldn't resist).

Cathy Yardley said...

I love this! I'm like Katie... hard core plotter in writing and cooking. (Actually, I'm more of a baker; scientifically precise!) I'm a massive foodie, and I just loved the analogies here. Definitely sharing this one. :D

Lisa Kessler said...

I'm a total panster which might also explain why my cooking skills are very limited! LOL

Fun post! Good luck with your book too!!!

Lisa :)

Boone Brux said...

A girl after my own heart! Sometimes I'd rather be a plotter when my organic storyline needs to be tossed into the compost pile. Have I mentioned I love food? My goal this summer is to figure out the Red Robin's ranch dressing recipe. I said I loved food, not that I was a good cook. Great post, Jus!

Heather Howland said...

This is what I love about Jus. Me = chronic plotter and over-planner. I LOVE TO PLOT. (somebody get me a t-shirt, quick!) When my biscotti has gone rock hard in the oven, Jus is my go-to girl.

Ironically, I'm a great cook and hate using recipes. I don't even measure. Drives people who want my secret recipes absolutely batty :-)

Jus Accardo said...

Aubrie - Thanks for popping by!

Christa - The best dishes come from making substitutions IMO! (And I ALWAYS have white wine waiting to swap for broth!)

Katie - See, and I admire you! I love my process. Really. I do. But it makes for more revising sometimes. Somedays I'd LOVE to be a plotter, lol.

Cathy - Mmmm baking. I look back and wonder how I would have done in the C.I.A. I was going for pastry and that's so NOT a fly by the seat of your pan kinda thing :D We'll have to talk food soon!

Lisa - LOL! Thanks for stopping in ! :)

Boone - I've trashed stuff before because the storyline was just too all over the place. But on the other side of the same coin, I've had things just SPILL out. I wrote TOUCH in exactly 30 days and I'm convinced that if I'd tried to outline it, it would've been a disaster. And OMG. I LOVE that dressing. Now that you mentioned it, its all I can think about...

Jus Accardo said...

Heather - LOL! And hmm... T-shirt ideas...

Sh*t of get off the plot

Plotting...it's not just for evil geniuses anymore

Okay... I need more coffee :P

Nina Croft said...

I always wanted to be a pantser - but I'm not - I'm a total plotter - which is weird because I'm completely unorganized in the rest of my life - including cooking.

Great post - I love the comparison!

Rachel Firasek said...

Jus, great post and as another lover of food, I like the comparisons. lol. I'm a pantser. I've completely fought this because of how many rewrites I abuse before finally nailing a draft, but it's just part of my process--thank goodness I write fast. The novella I just finished revising was sliced and diced by my editor, rearranged and all together violated, but its beautiful now. This is the only ms I've ever outlined, plotted and written to a plan. I'll never do it again. I'm with you. Be a messy unorganized writer if the end result is right for you!

Katy said...

Love this post, Jus! I'm an obsessive plotter and it works for me, but I'm sometimes envious of you and all the other fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantsters. It seems more... fun?

And surprise, surprise: I follow recipes to a T. :)

Shea Berkley said...

I don't plot. I plan the high point usually, but plotting takes all the fun out of the process for me. I'm glad you've found your groove. If it ain't broke, don't mess with it, right?

Jo Ramsey said...

For my series, I do notes and timelines and stuff, because otherwise I'd forget what happened in the previous books. For most of my books, though, I might have a vague idea of what's supposed to happen, but I don't usually make notes or plot ahead of time.

As for cooking... I'm the only person I know who can follow a recipe to the letter and still muck it up.

Sarah Gilman said...

Hi Jus!

Fabulous post, and great analogy. :)

My writing process is similar, as is my writing process. However, my writing turns out all right in the end. My cooking... usually goes into the biohazard trash. Oh, well. :)

Nicola Marsh said...

Great analogy, Jus!

I love to cook and start off following a new recipe but end up tweaking and adding and putting my own spin on it...which is exactly what I do with my writing!

I have an idea, I jot it down, flesh out the characters on paper a bit before starting. Then I just 'pants' all the way.

I love hearing about writers' processes, fascinates me :)

Jus Accardo said...

Nina - LOL. Secretly, I've always wanted to be a plotter! Thanks for stopping by :)

Rachel - Amen sistah! There's method to our madness. There is. Really.... :D

Katy - It IS fun. But sometimes it's a lot more work. Good thing I've got some kick-ass CPs ;D

Shea - Exactly! The book I'm working on now is one of the first I've gone in with the high point in mind. That's probably about the extent of planning my brain could take :P

Jo - Notes for ongoing series are priceless. As long as they're made after the book is done :D Thanks for stopping by!

Sarah - LOL! I bet your cooking isn't that bad :)

Nicola - Me too! It always amazes me how we're all ending up at pretty much the same point (finished books, novellas, ect) and yet the road we use to get there is SO different.

Patricia Eimer said...

Love the post. And it doesn't sound crazy. I cook the way I write as well. And it's always messy. Which is why a good editor is a saint!

Agrabren said...

Love the analogy. I do some of my best work when I follow my instincts. Often times, it'll take hours for me to understand why I took a particular stance, but I was right. It's amazing how the mind works. What's more amazing is how easily derailed your mind can become when you do things to "keep it on track". Love the post!

Christine said...

Jus - too funny! I take a recipe and then I tweak it - haven't followed a single recipe to the end in years (except for hollandaise sauce - but that's another story). And that's the way I write, too - except for the not following an outline part. Because I can't write an outline to save my bacon.

Kristin Lenz said...

Great post, Jus! I wrote a "Cook Your Book" article for the SCBWI-MI newsletter a couple years ago, but your spin is completely different than the direction I took. I love your risotto analogy! I guess my process is a blend. I don't outline, but I keep notes to guide my writing, and I follow recipes, but almost always tweak the ingredients.

Jus Accardo said...

Patrica - Oh, hell yeah. A good editor is like gold! Thanks for stopping by :)

Agrabren - Thanks for popping in :D

Christine - Ooo. Now I'm curious about the hollandaise sauce :D

Kristin - I love that :D "Cook your book" ! And the risotto analogy was great...only I ended up itching for risotto last night LOL

Natalie Aguirre said...

I admire that you still follow your passion for cooking too. I did not use an outline the first time, but I think I will on my next book.

Kristen Simmons said...

This is great Jus! I like to reference a recipe when I cook, but take liberties. My writing is probably the same. Yeah, I have a pretty decent outline, but what if I throw in a dash of serial killer (BAM!) and maybe blow up a few buildings (BAM!) and then add a zombie or two, just for flavor (BAM! BAM!)

"Revisions are kind of like making Risotto. If you over toast the rice (story) the outcome is going to be less flavorable."

Girl you are so right.

Ella Gray said...

Great post, Jus! I plot, but not in a strict or detailed way. I rarely follow recipes, though, probably because I've been cooking and experimenting with food for so many years that I've learned enough to freestyle. I hope to eventually gain enough writing experience to do the same with my stories. And now I'm hungry. Where are my ginger snaps?!

Jus Accardo said...

Natalie - My family would starve if I didn't. They all come here on the holidays :D

Kristen - Mmmm Zombie flavor is AWESOME :P

Ella - Ginger snaps! OMG. I haven't had those in years... *sneaks off to run to the store...*

Kurt Hampe said...

Great post, Jus. You sent me scrambling to the bookcase for my mid-90's guide to culinary schools. Looks like I recycled it. I remember dog-earing pages though, especially for a school in Scottsdale, AZ. And I remember the appendices. One listed what chefs loved about their jobs. One listed what they hated about their jobs (essentially the same list). Another listed salaries in that pre-celebrity chef era—scary.

I treat cooking recipes like a rough outline. I’ll research critical proportions, times, or temperatures. But then it’s time to play. In fact, I have free-range, grass-fed beef stewing right now.

But you asked about writing. I keep one foot in the recipe world, and one foot in the wing-it world. I’m neat and organized. I take notes and build an outline as I go. I think long and hard about themes, boundaries, plot, and characters. But initially I just write. I wing-it until I discover the story. Sometimes that means writing the entire first draft. Sometimes that means compulsively rewriting the first few chapters (my crit group will attest to this). I also afford myself time to think a story through. I once wrote the opening line to a book, and then left it until I had the complete story worked out in my head—two years later.

Ultimately, though, I think the differences between processes are a matter of terminology. If I wing my way through an entire first draft, what I’ve really done is write a chapter-by-chapter outline with detailed character bios.

Colette Ballard said...

Great post, Jus! I'm with you. My process is all over the place--i tend to write the scene i'm 'feeling' even if it's out of order. I'd love to be a plotter and have even tried. My latest attempt consisted of me writing tons of pages and ideas only to start writing the actual book and fall in love with the guy (who was supposed to be random and not THE guy) on page one. Then my crit. partner confirmed my fear that i was actually writing 2 separate books...