How to Bake a Novel

appletart2Like most of my novel-writing friends, when I let my mind drift to lottery winning fantasies, they have very little to do with buying a Bentley and have everything to do with time. Time to write. Time to research. Time to make all of those edits that wake me up in the middle of the night. But I have a dirty little secret. I love my day job.

I am a baker.

Sure, if I won Megabucks tonight (and yes, I bought a Megabucks ticket for tonight’s drawing-my dad’s old number), I would love to work less. And if you ask me the same question during the Christmas season, when I am elbow-deep in Buche de Noel, I will have a different answer. Peppered with profanities. But getting out of bed in full darkness and into the kitchen gives me structure, and keeps me off the Facebook-Tumblr-Twitter circle of hell I find myself in when I am avoiding revision. Some of my best scenes have come to me while I was chopping twenty pounds of apples. My novel takes place largely in a kitchen, a wonderful pressure cooker of stress and love and creativity, so working also serves as research.  But as I revise (and revise), I have come to discover that baking has in many ways taught me how to write a novel. Here is what I have learned.

1. Inspiration

indianpudding

When I am designing a plated dessert, it always begins with what I would want to eat. The cravings become irresistible. In November it’s Indian pudding, and I find myself stirring a pot of cornmeal and milk, sweetened with black strap molasses and spices. In the dead of winter, when the world is devoid of color, I turn to lemons and grapefruit, their sharp bite waking me up, their bright colors a promise of spring. Like my cravings for sweets, the novel I wrote is the story I wanted to read. Whether it’s the perfume of fresh peaches at the farmers market or the image of a group of women silently watching a pie judging take place behind a glass wall-whatever your story idea is-there will be a craving, a pull that you will not be able to ignore.

2. Pre-heat the oven

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This is the dreaming time, where your novel is a spark, a collection of disjointed images and voices, but the bulk of the story is still to be discovered. For me this takes place in the form of daydreaming. The setting of my novel began to take shape in my mind as I cared for my elderly three-legged dog. On our slow city walks I built the Vermont town where my novel takes place. Dropping into my story world carried me through a time of deep sadness. It was a world that I longed for. But I don’t think I could have begun to put the words down on paper at that time. I needed the dream.

3. Mise en place

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This is a French cooking term that means to put everything in its place. It is the practice of measuring out all of the ingredients before you begin a large project. You don’t want to have your butter and sugar perfectly creamed, only to find out you are out of eggs. The same is true for writing. There are necessary tools-a functioning computer, so you don’t run the risk of losing your draft when it crashes. Again. Or piles of notebooks and good pens. Research to do if the world your story takes place in is foreign to you. An outline if that is how you like to work. All solid preparation that will serve as the foundation, so your creative mind can have its time to play.

4. Things will get sticky

sticky-hands

There will be a time, in the middle, when you, and everything around you, including the dog, are covered with a paste of sugar syrup and flour, and you will regret starting this project. There are too many steps! Do I really have to fold in the egg whites? Why not just mix the whole eggs in there? And isn’t that bakery down the street wonderful? The world is full of cakes-no one needs me to make this from scratch. When every revision leads to two more revisions, with every change of voice, or the killing off of a beloved character, your book will feel too messy, too big, too much work. But you don’t want to waste all of those ingredients do you? Keep going.

5. You will be tempted to under-bake your book

fallencake

By giving it to readers before you are ready for feedback, by avoiding revision, by putting life jackets on your darlings, self-publishing without even running spellcheck… if you do this, you will find that the center is a gooey mess.

6. Or over-bake it           

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Just one more revision! What if I change this Elizabethan period novel into a futuristic dystopian YA? I need to do a little more research on beard length and maintenance before anyone can see it…If you do this, you will bake the life out of your book. Listen to your novel. Press your fingertips onto the top gently and see if it springs back. It will tell you when it’s done. Don’t second-guess yourself.

7. Tasters

judges

One of the most frequent requests I receive in the kitchen is taste this. It can be the best (and worst) part of my job. But over the years I have learned that Luc is the best judge of sweetness, Greggie the best judge of salt. And if Charlie says “that’s pretty good”, I know I’ve made something special. Baking brownie after macaroon after tuile, my pallet gets tired. Their fresh taste buds are essential. This is even more true for writers. Feedback is one of the most important ingredients-don’t settle and buy the imitation vanilla. When it comes time for feedback, chose your readers carefully. Find readers that are honest, thoughtful, generous. Who love novels as much as you do. Who read for pleasure. Who want your book to be the best it can be.

8. No matter how tasty you think it is, not everyone will like it.

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I hate honey. It’s true. I find it cloying, sticky, and its flavor dominates whatever its around. So if you have baked the world’s most incredible baklava, baklava that took you hours of delicately brushing butter onto layer after layer of phyllo, I’m not going to like it. It’s going to taste like honey! So, if your book is called For the Love of Honey, or The Bear’s Paw in the Hive I’m going to walk by it at the bookstore. (Okay, I’d pick up the bear paw one.)

9. And when it’s done

louisecake

And you are sharing it with your friends‑you will forget all of the work, the floury dog prints all over your carpet, the expense, the dirty dishes-and nothing will taste so sweet.

7 comments

  1. Emily Ross

    I love this post. It combines two things I love to do baking (at least I used to) and writing. And seeing the writing process in ‘baking’ terms makes it feel so much more manageable and less stressful.

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