Sunday, March 21, 2021

Eating Your Experiments

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 7

Over the years, my family has enjoyed some wonderful meals — but also suffered through some, let's say, less than appetizing results — from my culinary experiments. Still, when they ask "what's for supper?" and I reply, "An experiment," they don't immediately groan, which means, I hope, that my success rate when trying new things in the kitchen is reasonably high.

Of course, my "kitchen experiments" are generally not revolutionary, totally-from-scratch, three-course dinners. Most of the time, these fresh culinary creations are adaptations of tried-and-true meals or variations on a recipe I found online that I decided to put my own spin on.

Take, for example, the stuffed peppers in the image. I made these the other night. I had baked stuffed peppers once previously (in a bit of a failed experiment because they fell over and didn't cook thoroughly). In addition, I filled these with a seafood stuffing I've made a ton of times instead of the standard spicy meat concoction. I even looked up a recipe for stuffed peppers to get some tips on cooking time and oven temp. I learned two tricks from this research to help correct my earlier mistakes: (1) cut a slice off the bottom to make them stand straight, and (2) par-boil the peppers before stuffing them to make sure they cook through.

This par-boiling trick (something I knew about for other baked vegetable dishes, but often forget to use) might have made my last experiment previous to the peppers work out better. I tried to use thin-sliced butternut squash as noodles in an alfredo-seafood lasagna (we've been eating a lot more seafood lately). What we ended up with was cheesy seafood soup with under-cooked squash. After a little more cooking, we still ate it. But it could have worked better, and I will remember that trick next time.

The basic reason one of these experiments worked perfectly while the other had some serious structural issues was that for the peppers, I was building on skills I had already practiced (and researched the parts I needed help with), while with the squash lasagna, I went out on a limb and tried something I hadn't tried using a technique that I didn't fully understand.

Building a Foundation

This is a lesson I learned early on in my writing career. You need to learn the basics and practice using them correctly until they become second nature to you. Only then can you break the rules and get away with it. There really is no short cut to this. There is an old adage that goes something like this: "Even Picasso learned the rules of perspective before he started to break those rules intentionally." 

Breaking the rules by accident generally leads to "accidents" whether you are typing a story on your computer or preparing a meal in the kitchen (thus, the uncooked squash noodles). This goes beyond basic spelling, grammar, and sentence construction. As a writer, you need to learn a number of tricks of the trade to help your prose flow, make your points clearly, and engage the reader with your sparkling writing. 

Here are a few lessons to learn and practice:

  • Choose the best word for every situation. Nouns and verbs are the backbone of strong writing. Don't settle for variations of the verb "to be" when you can put a more evocative verb in its place, and avoid adjectives and adverbs if possible. A strong noun can stand on its own. Using an adjective often means you haven't found the best noun for the situation.
  • Vary sentence length to control the pace of your writing. Many young writers fall in love with long, complicated sentences with plenty of commas, semi-colons, and dashes (I was one of them). There is a place for long sentences in fiction. They help slow down the pace, make the reader pay more attention, and give you time to explain complicated issues. Short sentences move the story along. They make action scenes feel frenetic. They are easy to read. The create a quick pace that drives stories forward. 
  • Use rising and falling action to create tension. There is a reason most authors write stories grounded in a three-act structure. Not only are readers accustomed to this structure, but it helps provide real tension in the plot. You want the tension in a story to rise and fall in arcs. If it is all action all the time, you have no time to delve into character motivations and thematic elements. If your characters face no tension — no obstacles — the story can become bland and grind to a halt under its own weight. (A future blog in this series will dive deeper into the three-act structure.)
  • Adhere strictly to your point of view. Most fiction today is written in either first-person or third-person POV (point of view). First-person is mostly used in hard-boiled detective novels (especially those with a "film noir" flare). My new Kolchak novel (due out soon) is written first-person. Almost every other novel these days is written in third-person. The value of third person is that you can switch POV between characters at chapter breaks and even scene breaks. But, once you are in one character's POV, you must stay there. You cannot tell the reader what a non-POV character is thinking. If you want to go inside their head, end the scene and start a new one. This is a tough skill to master, but it is essential for clarity.

These are not all of the basic writing skills of fiction, but these are ones I find essential to master and ones I have had to learn through practice, which involve years of writing and re-writing a lot of stories. There is no easy way, no shortcut, for getting to the point where these skills are ingrained into your writing psyche so you can use them correctly without even thinking about — and then, intentionally, break them to do something interesting with your story.

Breaking Rules and Taking Chances

Once you master the building blocks of writing (or cooking), your experiments will begin to succeed more often than they fail. Over the past 20+ years of cooking for my family (and writing fiction, both of which began in earnest around the same time), I have built a decent foundation of skills and knowledge. 

I have a good idea what herbs and spices to use (and in what proportion) to make a dish savory without going overboard and making it too spicy, too salty, unpalatable. In my fiction, I have a good feel for tone and dialog to keep a story believable even when set in a fantastical setting. I know how much time and space to spend on description, narration, dialog, and action to keep readers grounded in the story while driving the plot forward at a good pace.

But all of that will still not make you a great writer. The best writers take chances. Almost anyone with some talent can weave together a compelling story that will keep readers turning pages. The memorable stories are the ones where the author did something new, something incredible that you weren't expecting. Some examples of this from movies include Memento and Inception, which both turned the forward-moving three-act plot structure on its head. I also loved the HBO series, Watchmen, which played with our perception of good and evil, heroes and villains, and time itself.

All that being said, it is still important to follow some rules when you are breaking the rules. Here are three I have learned over the years:

Take a chance on inspiration

When an idea pops into your head, take some time to follow it down the path before you jump in and use it. For example, what happens when your strict outline dictates that character needs to go left but you suddenly realize that character doesn't want to go left, that the way you have written them, they would never go left in this situation. What do you do?

It's almost always a good idea to follow the lead of your characters. If you have done a good enough job to make them believable, they can come to life in your head, and you will just get a feel for how they will react in most situations. However, before you jump in and head blindly down that path, you want to take some time to determine how that decision will affect your outline, and how you can gently move the character back into the path of the plot later on.

I recently got inspired by a box of Roasted Red Pepper soup I found hidden in the back of my pantry. I didn't know what I wanted to do with it at the time, but I kept thinking about that box of soup. A few days later, while looking through the freezer, I realized we had a lot of various types of seafood and suddenly the entire path of the dinner came together in my head and that night, I made an improvised Cioppino using that red pepper bisque as the basis.

Don't take the first (easy) answer

 This is a rule I was taught a long time ago and I come back to it again and again. When characters face obstacles or enemies and you are looking for ways for them to overcome those obstacles or defeat those enemies, don't always use the first idea that comes to you. This will be the easy answer, the one that probably comes to mind for a lot of people. 

Stretch your imagination to find alternative, more interesting, answers. And, sometimes, the best answer is to let your characters fail. Not only does this make the character more believable (no one wins every time), but sometimes even better ideas come from handing your character a setback that forces them (and you) to come up with an even more inventive way to move forward.

I did this recently for one of our dinners. While looking at some hamburger patties in the freezer, I thought we might do Salisbury Steaks (which we have done dozens of times and I can cook them without much thought). But I wanted to do something different that night, so I kept thinking until I came up with  new idea. Instead of using beef gravy, I made some shawarma marinade and cooked the hamburgers in that sauce. It was pretty amazing and will be something we will do again.

Turn a rule on its head

Finally, don't be afraid to turn any of the rules I have mentioned on its head as you write. I am not saying to ignore the rule. I am saying to turn it around for a specific reason in a specific circumstance. Do it intentionally. Do it purposefully.

Let me give you an example. Every writer and fiction editor will tell you the initial chapter of your novel should be written from the POV of your main character. Subsequent chapters can then switch to other POVs in relative order of importance of the characters involved. But in my most recent Necromunda novel, Soulless Fury, I began the first chapter from the POV of a relatively minor character. I did this for several specific reasons. 

First, this character had special insight into the nature of the world and, especially, the specific setting I was using for the initial scenes. Starting with him gave me the ability to describe the setting and some of the themes of the novel more directly. Second, the main character was searching for something and I wanted to keep that something a secret for as long as possible. Third, and most importantly, the main character is crazy, mad, insane. She is described in the lore of the world I was writing in as a "force of nature." I wanted her first appearance to be described from the outside, as she swept into town like a tornado destroying everything in her path. 

Finding Your Own path

There is so much more I could say on this subject, but at this point, I think the best way to help you master these techniques is to set you loose to do the work yourself. As I mentioned earlier, the best way to learn the skills you need to become a better writer or cook (or, actually, any creative endeavor) is to go practice. 

The absolute best advice I ever received about writing was this: If you want to be a writer, then write (and read) a lot! But you have to do both of those with a critical eye. See what works (and doesn't work) in both your own writing and in the writing of other authors (both good and bad). Sometimes you have to eat your mistakes so you can learn how to not make those same mistakes again.


Friday, March 12, 2021

Making a Roux

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 6

Sauces are the bane of my cooking existence. They are these magical things in restaurants that make your mouth water with their creamy decadence and their complementary (and sometimes counterpointing) flavors that, as the Dude might say, "really bring the dish together."

Don't get me wrong. I've had successes with sauces. I once made a wonderful Oscar sauce (creamy crab topping for a grilled steak) that was utter perfection, as good as any I've ever had in a high-end steak house. But, the next time I tried to make the same sauce, it utterly failed. In the parlance of a real chef, I believe it "broke!"

I've always been afraid of sauces, which is part of the problem, and I have not spent much time learning the fine points. In fact, until recently I didn't really understand how to make a roux, which is the basis of most sauces. It always seemed so alien. You add flour to melted butter to create these globs of solid matter, and then somehow when you add the liquid in, it all becomes this wonderfully rich, creamy sauce. How in the world do all these disparate elements come together to make something so divine?

Then I watched Andrew Rea (of Basics with Babish) make what he called the "best turkey gravy of all time" (and it was!) on his Last Minute Thanksgiving special. I finally had the"Ah hah!" moment while watching him combine the heated stock to the roux a little at a time while stirring constantly. I realized at that moment that it all works similarly to making risotto (which I learned from another Basics with Babish episode). 

Even then, I have made mistakes because, you see, the proportions are critical. Get one thing wrong and it all breaks. Yes, you can fix a broken sauce, but I am still working on that particular skill as well. Sometimes, I just have to throw it all out and start over.

The Roux of Writing

So, you may be wondering, how does all of this relate to writing fiction? What is the roux of writing? For me, I sometimes find a special, roux-like sauce in the plotting done by certain authors. A wonderful combining of disparate plot elements and characters and story-lines that somehow come together to draw you into the book and sweep you along for a wild ride even though, early on, it all looks like a bunch of different pieces that will never combine into anything coherent.

Let me give you an example: The novel, Leviathan Awakes by James S.A. Corey, which is the first book in the set of eight science fiction novels that are the basis for the hit television series The Expanse, drops readers into a strange future world that they know nothing about. Here humanity works on and travels to many of the planets, moons, and asteroids in our own solar system.

This first "Expanse" novel has two main POV characters: Holden and Miller. Both men live and work in the asteroid belt and both have character flaws that become apparent as the story unfolds. Both characters are following threads of the same overarching plot, but neither even know the other, let alone that they are working toward similar (but not exactly the same) goals. In fact, Miller and Holden don't even meet until chapter 23! More than 40 percent of the way through the book. 

Miller and Holden are the butter and flour of this story. They are two wildly different pieces that you follow through separate adventures until they come together in a clump, waiting to be smoothed into a cohesive whole as the rest of the story unfolds.

I love this type of story. I enjoy following a story where not everything gets explained up front. This means that you, the reader, must deduce certain things from context as the story unfolds, which allows for surprises later on. This love of murky stories might have come from my early love of mysteries. I love when I get that "I knew it!" moment when my deductions were correct. And, sometimes I would get the "Oh. I get it now" moment instead when the big reveal happens. Of course, this assumes the writer was doing their job right and didn't leave gaping plot holes that broke the story. 

Another example of this in recent times was the HBO miniseries, The Watchmen. Set in the same world as the original graphic novel. this series takes place many years after the climax of the original source material and involves a different set of characters. There are many big mysteries in this series that the viewers must wait and watch to see how they unfold. Questions like: who is involved, which side is everyone on, why are things are happening the way they do and, sometimes, who the heck are some of these characters abounded in this series, especially in the first few episodes. I loved it. That was a complex sauce that looked like clumps of lumpy flour for a long time before the story started to come together. But come together it did!

Intricacies of Making the Sauce

I have tried this in my own writing with some degree of success. As with making sauces for my meals, I sometimes get it right and sometimes miss a bit. The toughest part for me is tamping down my urge to explain everything. This is something that does not come easy to me. I'm a chronic over-explainer (just ask my family).

I attempted this (fairly successfully, I believe) in my recent novel, Soulless Fury. The story has two main characters who, like Miller and Holden, don't meet until about a third of the way through the book.  I also have several other POV characters and, in fact, the novel starts from the POV of a fairly minor character.

As with making a roux, however, writing a novel with multiple, completely separate POVs, or where the story unfolds at a slower pace, or where the author doesn't explain every intricacy of setting, character and plot as soon as they are introduced, can be tricky. Here are a few ways to avoid pitfalls so you don't end up breaking your story.

Engage the Reader. A well-made sauce is rich, flavorful, and velvety. It delights your taste buds. If you're asking readers to come along with your characters for several chapters before they begin to understand what is happening in the story, you have to make it worthwhile. Engage readers with some strong action sequences, glimpses at the deeper mystery, sparkling dialog or descriptions. In short, give them a taste of the rich payoff they will receive if they stay until the end.

Know Your World. If you are spinning a complex yarn with multiple characters, exotic locales, and/or a complicated set of plots and subplots, it is pivotal that you know how that world works, who those characters are, what those locales look like, and how all the pieces interact with one another. You absolutely cannot wing this and expect the whole to stand together. You may want to keep your reader in the dark about certain things, but if you are in the dark about them you will end up with gaping plot holes that will break the story.

Provide Enough Context. Readers need some information about characters, plot, and locales to keep them grounded in the story. This is where the proportions of the roux become important. If you explain too much early on, the story can get bogged down in descriptions and nothing will ever happen. On the other hand, if you don't provide enough context, you run the real risk of losing the interest of your readers. Small bits and pieces added in at the right moments can go a long way. Make it feel natural, too. Don't force it. And never, ever, ever, use the phrase "As you know." If that character already knows this information, why is the other character telling them about it?

But Don't Overwhelm. the flip side of providing enough context is overwhelming readers with too much information. This is especially true (and all too easy a trap to fall into) when you are writing in fantasy or science fiction worlds. By their very nature, they are filled with strange creatures, places, and technology (or magic) that the readers won't understand. And then there are the names. Some authors just love to use long, fanciful names for their characters, which can make it nearly impossible to remember them later.

Example: I will admit that as much as I loved Leviathan Awakes, I got a bit lost early on as Holden and his eventual shipmates, Naomi, Alex, and Owen started on one ship, spent time on a smaller ship, and then got captured and held on a third ship, only to escape from that ship on the vessel that would, finally, become "their" ship, the Rocinante. Each of those ships had a name, but I couldn't tell you to this day, what they all were. 

Bring Everything Together 

This is the most critical piece. With a roux, it is the stock (or whatever liquid you use to turn the clumpy bits of buttery flour into a milky smooth sauce). For a novel, the secret ingredient is often the overarching plot or the disparate goals of the main characters that somehow align in the end and bring all the different strands of plots and subplots together in a mad rush to the climax. 

In my novel, Soulless Fury, one main character is chasing the other, who it turns out also is searching for a third character. (A character that isn't introduced until chapter 12!) When all three of these characters finally come together in chapter 24, they begin to realize how much they have in common even as the rest of the world and their individual backgrounds are driving them apart. They are then faced with the choice of working together or continuing to be adversaries. Their ultimate relationship — and the climax of the story — ends up falling somewhere in between in, what I hope, was a satisfyingly rich sauce.

Monday, March 1, 2021

What's For Supper?

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 5

I mentioned in the first part of this series that I have been the primary cook for our family of 5 for the past 20-plus years. Figuring we eat out, on average, about once per week (until this past year, obviously), that's more than 6,000 dinners I have planned and prepared since 2001!

On many days, I have a plan for supper early in the day or even the day before, and I get some meat out from the freezer to thaw early. I often plan ahead for big weekend meals when the meat needs extra time to thaw (hard to cook a roast the same day you pull it from the freezer).

But over the past 20 years, I can tell you that there were many days when I stared at the open freezer late in the afternoon hoping for inspiration to strike (and that said inspiration would involve something I could thaw in the microwave or cook from frozen).

I doubt I'm the only family cook out there who sometimes just doesn't want to cook on a particular day. There are plenty of days when you've been busy working around the house all day — especially during the heat of summer — and you just don't feel like standing at the chopping block and the stove for a couple hours at the end of a long day, especially if you don't already have a meal plan prepared.

I've never been the type of family cook who plans an entire week's worth of meals every Sunday. I prefer to be inspired. But after 6,000 meals, inspiration sometimes is hard to come by, and the drudgery of cooking day after day after day begins to wear on you. This is why family's eat out, I believe: To break up the monotony of the every day meal. 

This monotony has come into sharp focus this past year when our options for eating out became nonexistent for a long time. I got to the point where after we finished eating, I would ask the family, "So, what should we do for supper tomorrow night?" Having just cooked for two hours and seen my family devour my hard work in 15 minutes, the only thought in my head was, "I have to do this all over again tomorrow."

This, in a nutshell, is Writer's Block!

 Faced with a blank piece of paper (or blank screen in modern parlance), writers can find their mind becomes a blank as well. That's the classic version of writer's block, at any rate. It also can happen when you reach major turning points in your plot or when you realize that your characters have gone off script and you're unsure how to get them to come back to the plot. 

Basically, writer's block can happen anytime you reach a break in what you're writing and are unsure where to go next. Sure, there are other ways, times, and reasons that writer's block occurs but, in my experience, this is the most prevalent cause. You're staring at the freezer and have no idea what to make for supper that night. 

A detailed outline (a meal plan, if you will) can help you avoid writer's block. Knowing exactly what is supposed to happen next in the plot can reduce the number of times you get stuck and helps you forge ahead even when you don't feel inspired. Some writers, however, feel that detailed outlines stifle their creativity. And even for those who use outlines (as I have for most of my novels), there are still times when characters forge off on their own tangents and you have to find ways to bring them back to the plot or make the plot crash back down on them (which can be a lot of fun).

Other writers simply write at full speed, rushing to put words on the page while the ideas are fresh in their minds. They don't worry overly about typos, punctuation, or sentence structure. They don't preplan how to introduce characters or plot points. They don't spend time searching for the exact right word for every situation. They just write at a breakneck pace, trying to fill all the blank pages with words. These writers can do this because they know full well they will go back through this messy first draft one or more times again to clean up the structure, and improve the phrasing, wording, and pacing to weave the story into a cohesive whole.

I take a different approach. I started out in life as an editor before I became a writer, so it is almost impossible for me to write a messy copy. I edit and revise and alter everything as I am writing. I constantly reread a previous sentence or paragraph and make small — or even large — changes to it over and over until I am content with the finished product.

This process has actually helped me overcome writer's block over the years. I tend to start each day by reading the last scene I wrote the day before, making even more small revisions along the way because I can never quell my inner editor. But what this also does for me is put me back into the flow of the story, so when I am done revising yesterday's work, I can move right into the next scene or chapter because the ideas behind whatever plot point or piece of character development that had been driving me the day before is right there in my head pushing me forward as I write today's words.

However, I do still face the issues of fatigue and monotony — the whole "what's for supper tonight" problem. Writing a novels (especially under a deadline) are a daily grind. You say, I have three months to pump out 90,000 words. That's 30,000 per month, about 1,000 per day, or 7,500 per week.

After a while, even for the most disciplined authors, this daily or weekly tally can become a crushing grind, a weight around your neck that starts to drag your creativity down into a dark pit. Writer's block.

So, what do you do? Well, waiting for inspiration is just about the worst idea. If you have a deadline, the longer you wait for inspiration to hit the more behind you will get and the heavier that weight will feel around your neck. This is a spiraling road that only ever leads downward.

During 2020, I contracted to write two novels and a short story by June. Then the pandemic hit. I had to write every day. I had to hit those daily/weekly milestones every week for six months. I had to do all of this despite the stress of everything going on around us in the world, despite my normally quiet home turning into a home office for three more people who were sheltering in place with me.

During that time, I found the best way for me to overcome the weight of the grind was to simply "put my butt in the chair and start writing!" I didn't always want to. I didn't always feel inspired. But I did it anyway. I forced myself to write one sentence and then another and then another. Eventually, the inspiration would hit and the words would start to flow and sing. Then, once the inspiration was flowing, I would go back to the day's first few sentences and improve them if needed.

I thought about this the other day while standing in front of the freezer waiting for dinner inspirations to hit me. So, I just reached in and grabbed some frozen, Impossible burger patties, figuring we would simply have a burger and fries night

But then something happened. Once I had made that one decision (choosing burgers over any other meat) — once I had decided to sit my butt down and force my way through the daily grind of cooking supper — that decision freed up my mind and allowed the inspiration to flow. Instead of veggie burgers and fries, that night, I made a tasty Mediterranean variation on Salisbury steak using a homemade shawarma marinade in place of beef gravy. It was a huge success, which came from pushing through my, almost daily lately, cooking block.