Sunday, October 21, 2012

My Secret Ingredient

I made clam chowder last week.  Clams are not my favorite food on the planet, and chowder doesn't appeal to me, but my husband loves it so I figured I'd give it a shot.  I found a recipe, got my ingredients together and started chopping vegetables.  When it came time to saute them in the pan, I stopped.  "You know what this needs?" I said to my husband.  "Bacon."

I pulled out the bacon, fried it, set it aside, and cooked the vegetables in the grease.  I followed the rest of the recipe to the letter, but just before serving I crumbled the bacon into the chowder.  What I ended up with was chowder that immediately topped my family's list of favorite dinners.

So what does this have to do with writing?  A lot, actually.  Last week I wanted to talk about outlines, but with family visiting, I ran out of time.  Outlines are fantastic.  They are like recipes.  Our characters get their background from them.  They give us a step-by-step guide to keep our plots on track.  The trouble for me is knowing when to stick with the recipe, and when to switch it up.  When to add a little bacon.

I wrote my first story without an outline.  What I turned out was a 120,000 word monstrosity.  There were entire chapters that never should have made it into the story, but I was so lost that I needed that chapter to act as a buffer, to give me time to figure out where I was going and why.  I will probably never go back and fix that story, because it's more mess than usable material.  It taught me that I'm not one of those organized people that can keep things straight in my head.  After that, I started outlining.

The next story I wrote was better.  It had a clear beginning, middle and end.  What it didn't have was room to branch out.  I stuck to the outline so completely that the story ended up boring the pants off of me.  There were no exciting twists, no fun scenes where I went, "Wow, I can't believe I came up with that!"  It was so painful to write, in fact, that I started to question what the heck I was even doing.  Maybe writing wasn't for me.  What's the point in writing if you aren't having fun?

Over the years, I've had to find a middle ground.  It's still hard to figure out where that line is between following the recipe I wrote for myself, and adding a secret ingredient.  I give myself a loose guide, and fill in the blanks as I go.  I still struggle when it comes time to break away from my outline and make a major plot change, but I'm getting better.  I think this is my greatest defect as a writer, and probably something I'll struggle with for the rest of my life.  But understanding the problem is half the battle, and that makes me feel pretty good about my future as a writer.

What's your biggest challenge, and how do you compensate for it?


  1. Excellent post and I love the analogy.

    I can't write a story unless I have an idea of where it is going, but I always run into the moments when I wonder if I should deviate from the plan. It's tough. I only hope I'll get better at it the more I write. Kind of like with cooking. The more you cook, the more you know which deviations from the recipe are more likely to work.

  2. Mmmm...bacon. :)

    This is a great post, and I think it's awesome you know your writing style so well. I think we're pretty similar, but I can't say I know myself well enough to be sure. Sometimes one way works, sometimes another...maybe this is the year I'll get to know myself well enough to know my style.


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