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How Do You Cook Your Books?

[1]I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation with dinner guests at my house. If they like something I serve, they’ll ask for a recipe. My answer is the same about 97 percent of the time: “Well, there’s not really a recipe, exactly….”

When I cook, I never follow instructions. I meld and blend, pulling a technique from one recipe and ingredient list from another, plus a half a handful of something else I want to use up before it goes bad, and a last-minute substitution of something I actually have for something I thought I had, but didn’t. I made a Chinese cumin lamb stir-fry [2] for dinner tonight, except I used beef instead of lamb, swapped the crispy coating for a marinade of soy sauce and sesame oil and ginger, cut the cumin in half, added shiitake mushrooms, deglazed the pan partway through with some rice wine vinegar, and half-decided/half-forgot to put in the hot dried peppers. Was it still delicious? Yes. Was it what the recipe writers at the New York Times had in mind? Not even remotely.

I write the same way. I have tried many times to use an outline. My outlines seem logical and perfectly well thought-out, and I use them to start writing, but the only variation is whether I jump ship midway through the first draft or whether I have to write the whole thing to see how wrong it is. I add and subtract characters. I recognize the beginnings of subplots and themes I didn’t actually put in on purpose, and rewrite to make them stronger. No matter how much thinking and planning I do beforehand, I change my plans while I’m putting the words down on the page for real. Writing helps me discover my own intent.

You, too, might be an improviser, in the kitchen and at the keyboard. But even improvisers benefit from recipes for a number of reasons: for inspiration, for technique, or just to see how other people do it. It benefits all of us to try it someone else’s way at least once.

And of course there are those who follow recipes most of the time, tweaking here or there to put their own stamp on something, but staying the course most of the way. The writer equivalent is the person who really does establish their plotting in advance, who puts down a synopsis and then produces a finished book that actually matches the summary they started with. Would the planners benefit from a little more improvisation here and there? It’s possible.

Because there is also the baker type. Baking is different from cooking — it’s a scientific process, one that requires exact alchemy. You can’t just increase, decrease, or approximate the amount of yeast to put into your bread willy-nilly. You might get a swollen loaf that overflows your oven, or a leaden brick that never rises in the first place. Improvisers don’t bake well. I know a writer who writes 50-page outlines and follow them — she lays the groundwork for success in that first stage. The improvisation method is far riskier.

And that, I think, is the reason you might want to think about how you cook your books. Because all three of these personality types can produce amazing, beautiful, compelling work. The challenges come when you try to force-fit a baker’s personality into an improviser’s style, or vice versa. Knowing who you are and how you work best is ultimately the best thing for your craft and your career.

Q: Are you an improviser, a recipe-follower, or a baker? (And does your cooking style mirror your writing style or not?)


About Jael McHenry [3]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [4] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [5] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.