Sunday, February 7, 2021

Tools of the Trade

 Nexus of Writing and Cooking (Part 2)

When I started cooking, I knew nothing about knives or pots and pans (or even spices and seasoning). I had a basic set of nonstick pans, a few glass baking pans (just like my mom used), some plastic spatulas, and measuring cup. I honestly didn't really know how to use any of them correctly.

This was not how I started as a writer. Before my first published story, I had taken years of English classes in high school and college, edited and written professionally as a newsletter editor and then later as both a magazine and book editor, and read tons and tons of books. I was not yet really reading critically (by which I mean, dissecting a story as I read it to see the choices the author made on things like plot lines, characterization, rising and falling action, crises points, etc.), but that would come in time.

My point is that when I started cooking, I didn't really have the tools of the trade or know how to use them. Because of this, my cooking was amateurish. It was fine for my family and I could follow a recipe with the best of them, but it was definitely lacking something (butter, mostly, if you ask any professional chef) and my mistakes far outweighed my successes when I experimented.

Here now are some of the writing and cooking tools I have learned to use over the years and why it is important to learn them early.

Basic Writing Tools

Strong Grammar. It all starts here. You might think it's a bit pedantic (and, yes, some people do get pedantic about grammar), but clear writing requires clear grammar. Yes, you can abandon grammar in your writing, but you must do so purposefully and with good reason, not because you don't know better. For example, you can have a character who doesn't use good grammar when speaking, which makes a strong statement about that character.

Word Choice. This is the big one for me (almost bigger than "show, don't tell"). First and foremost, avoid using "is" and "are" as much as possible. The English language can be agonizingly frustrating in its complexity, but we have stolen some of the best words other languages ever created. Use them! Nouns and verbs are the lifeblood of writing. Finding the right ones for every situation not only makes your writing stronger, it makes it more concise. Strong nouns and verbs don't need modifiers. I'm not saying don't ever use adjectives and adverbs, but sparing use will make them stand out and be more impactful.

Sentence Length. This is a rule I learned late in life. I was definitely one of those writers in school who loved long, complex sentences that went on for entire paragraphs. When I discovered the power of short sentences, it transformed my writing. I still use long sentences, but I try to use them purposefully. Sentence length is a sign to your reader to either speed up or slow down. Short sentences will drive your plot forward and are great for action sequences. Long sentences slow readers down so are perfect for when you want the reader to pay close attention while you explain something they need to understand.

Show, Don't Tell. Anyone who has ever wanted to be a writer has heard this aphorism.On its face, it means you should use concrete details when describing scenes and action. Don't just say, "she hit him." Say, "She slapped his cheek the imprint of her fingers were visible in the red imprint left behind." But more than that, show don't tell should influence all of your writing. Show the emotion on a character's face instead of telling the reader he looked sad. Have a character, in their own words, tell the reader and the other character in the scene what she is thinking instead of just narrating that for us. Paint a picture. Don't write an essay.

Basic Cooking Tools

Chef Knife.This is the "word choice" of cooking tools. It is the most important thing to get right. For years, I had no idea how to use my chef knife. I held it wrong and used it for everything. It is the perfect tool for dicing and chopping vegetables, but isn't really all that good for meat. When you hold it correctly (see the picture above) and hold your veg with your fingers curled so your fingernails become a guide, you can chop faster and more precisely. This makes your work so much easier and your finished product more professional.

Kitchen Scale. More important for baking than cooking (where precision is critical because it's basically chemistry), a good kitchen scale can also help you with portion control and when following recipe directions. Until you have a frame of reference for how large  4-ounce or 8-ounce piece of meat is or how much flour you need to add 250 grams to your pie crust dough, you will want a kitchen scale to help.

Meat Thermometer. I refused to use thermometers for a long time, but now that I have a really good one that gives me a readout almost immediately, I never serve meat without checking it first. This is really important for smoked meats where you need to heat to a very specific internal temp and any time you want to leave some pink inside a thick steak without serving raw meat to your friends and family. 

Stainless Steel Pans. I will admit that I have always used nonstick-coated pots and pans for all my cooking. I was deathly afraid of scorching my food and ruining both the meal and the pan. But, I have learned that stainless steel pans are important because those bits of baked on food are pure flavor when it comes time to make a sauce. Sauces scared me just as much as stainless steel pans, so I guess that's why it took me so long to come around. But searing a piece of meat and leaving all that "fond" behind to be scraped into your sauce is what it's all about. (Note: I plan to write a future blog all about my fear of sauces, so stay tuned for that.)

Why Basics Are Important

There is an old saying that goes something like this: You have to learn the rules before you can learn how to break them. The famous example of this is Picasso, who had learned the rules of perspective, but chose to use flattened perspective for purpose.

This is basically true. I like to use "and" repetitively in lists instead of simple commas and a single, trailing "and" at the end. I do this to add emphasis and give the writing a certain cadence. I like to think it's artistic, and I probably do it too often (a sentiment my editors definitely embrace). But, here is the thing. I am doing this purposefully. I am choosing to break the rules and I have reasons in my mind for doing so. And I am always aware that if I choose to break the rules, I may sacrifice clarity, and if that lack of clarity leaves readers in the dark, I have failed as a writer.

But, more importantly, rules also provide a much more concrete benefits to both the writer and the cook: Speed and precision. Using strong verbs and nouns doesn't just make my writing stronger, it makes it shorter. Sure, I often spend time staring at the ceiling searching my brain for the right word (or going on rhymezone to find synonyms). But I can often use five words instead of 25 to get a point across. Knowing how to correctly hold my chef knife sped up my dicing (and made it more precise so the end result vastly improved). 

Taking the time to know the basics pays dividends over the entire course of the rest of your career. Look, I know I am not a professional chef. At best, I'm a semi-talented amateur. I wish I had learned how to use a chef knife correctly twenty years ago or taken more than a couple cooking classes. On the other hand, I am glad I learned to choose my words more carefully — and vary my sentence length, and show don't tell, and all the other little rules of writing I learned — way back when. Without putting in all that work to learn the basics, I wouldn't be a professional writer today. 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Nexus of Writing and Cooking

I've been a home cook (not a professional chef by any stretch of the imagination) for at least 20 years. I became the principal cook for our family of five back when I first took up the mantle of "freelance writer" back in 2001 after layoffs cost me my dream job at Wizards of the Coast and my wonderful wife landed her dream job at Fisher-Price. We packed up our house and moved across the country — for a second time (stories for another time) — and I became a stay-at-home dad.

In the beginning, my cooking was pretty rudimentary. We had a lot of cereal and Pop Tarts for breakfast, PB&J and baloney sandwiches for lunch (or tuna fish if I was feeling industrious). And, because I grew up in the Midwest, we had a lot of meat and tater dinners. Pork chops cooked to an inch of their life in a skillet and boxed mash potatoes were commonly seen on the table. I also relied more heavily than I would like to remember on Hamburger Helper.

But, here's the thing: Eventually, I got better and better at cooking. I figured out I could cook my own pasta and add spices or a can of soup to make my own versions of all those boxed meals. I experimented and I practiced every day. (It turns out kids and spouses are pretty adamant about wanting to eat after school and work on a daily basis.)

At the same time, my writing was getting better, because as a freelancer, I also was practicing every day — and like my cooking, the results of my experiments and practice were put on display because there was no time to "play for myself" as it were; all of my words needed to go from my desk to an editor's desk.

Luckily, at home, I had a pretty easy audience. Kids aren't looking for Beef Wellington. They're fine with burgers and brats. But even back then I started to find my own style of cooking and favorites began to appear more and more often. I distinctly remember the day that I realized that not only were home-made mashed potatoes far superior to the box version, they weren't that had to make. Boil, mash, mix in milk, butter, and salt, and then keep adding milk until it gets really creamy.

Then came Karen's potatoes. This was a recipe my mom sent me from a friend of a friend who loved decadent comfort foods. Karen added sour cream and cream cheese to her potatoes on top of a LOT of butter. Oh. My. God! It was so good. From then on, I would look for new recipes whenever I got tired of making the same thing over and over. I wanted to really experiment and up my game in the kitchen.

Then we moved back across the country again when I landed a job in the video game industry in Seattle. I had less time to experiment and we needed quick foods after a long day at work, so tried and true became everyday, which meant lots of burgers and brats and pork chops and pasta again. 

But something had changed in the five years we spent in Buffalo: the Internet had really exploded and YouTube had arrived. If I wanted to try something new all I had to do was enter a search query and up came dozens of recipes. I would look for simple ones that had ingredients we had on hand and whip something up. My success rate was rising and I was getting a bit of reputation among the family at home as well as friends and co-workers at potlucks.

My wife and I missed German Potato salad, which we used to get from a can in the Midwest, so I found a recipe. My wife fell in love with Butter Chicken at an Indian restaurant near her office, so I found a recipe so I could make it for her. We went to see Avengers and afterward wanted to try Schwarma. After finding a fantastic restaurant in Downtown Seattle, I thought, "I can make that," and found a recipe I still use (we had Schwarma just the other night in fact).

Around this time, I also began experimenting with the recipes to make them more my own. I found a wonderful Moroccan spice blend that I substituted into my schwarma recipe. I love barbecue, so I found a rub recipe and made some modifications instead of relying a store-bought blend. (The image above, showing me applying my dry rub to a couple racks of ribs was taken as part of an application to become a traveling BBQ reviewer.) Just like with my writing, as I became more comfortable with how the different elements of the recipe worked together, I could make intelligent substitutions.

Then came YouTube cooking shows. I had watched a lot of Chopped, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and Alton Brown's shows on cable for a while and definitely learned a lot more from those than I ever had from following recipes. For one thing, I learned I hadn't been holding my chef knife correctly. I also learned how to season and cook steaks to perfection (as well as pork chops and fish — mo more dried-out meat in my house). 

But my education as a cook has increased ten-fold in the last few years since I became addicted to Binging With Babish. If you haven't seen this YouTube series, go check it out now and then come back in a few hours (or days) to finish reading this blog. Andrew Rea's show takes foods shown on television and movies (like Schwarma, but also like Sponge Bob's onion sundae) and shows how to make them — and how to make them better.

What I love about the Babish YouTube Series (he also produces Basics with Babish) is that he is self-taught (like me, only a LOT better) and talks to his audience as equals. His directions are clear and he explains why he is doing things and not just how to do them. I have learned more about cooking from watching Babish than from any other source.

So, today, when I am deciding what to make for supper, instead of thawing some ground meat and grabbing a box of Hamburger Helper, I go look in the freezer for inspiration. I check out the meats we have and the veggies and anything in there I can turn into a side dish and, in my mind, I create a meal plan for the night where every dish if building on the others to create something special.

Again, this is how I write as well. I get my characters together and their various plot lines and their histories that might come into play and I weave them together in — what I hope — is a pleasing story that not only hangs together but transports the reader to another world. As with my cooking, I am self-taught as a writer. But, like my cooking, I take inspiration from others — from professional chefs and cooking gurus who know more than I do and have things they can teach me.

And that's why I am writing this blog today. It is an introduction to a new series of blogs I plan to write about how the craft of cooking and the craft of writing are not only similar in that in the right hands, they are an art form, but that they both require a lot of practice and patience. They both require practitioners to learn the basics so they can then experiment intelligently with the elements to create something that is far better than the sum of its parts. 

I don't claim to know it all about either subject, but as a talented, self-taught, semi-pro at both, I think I have some insights into what is needed to succeed and, maybe, how to avoid dried-out, flavorless dishes.

Until next time, keep learning and never stop experimenting.

– Will

Monday, June 16, 2008

Worlds of their Own

A short story I wrote for the Eric Reynolds anthology, Golden Age SF: Tales of a Bygone Future, has been picked up to be reprinted in a new anthology featuring main stream SF works written by game-related fiction authors.

Check out the Paizo page for Worlds of their Own for more information.

The part that thrills me the most is the company I am keeping in this anthology. Big name authors like R.A. Salvatore, Mike Stackpole, and even Gary Gygax grace the cover. Pretty exciting stuff.

Cool cover too.

Can't wait to see this one.


Thursday, March 6, 2008


My latest piece of fiction will be in stores in less than a month.

Here's the link to the product page:

Shadowmoor Product Page

It is a new Magic Anthology. My story, "Meme's Tale," is an homage to The Jungle Book. I'm very happy with it. I hope readers enjoy it.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

RIP Gary Gygax

I know I don't post often enough, but this definitely deserved a post today.

I never met Gary Gygax, but I don't think it's hyperbole to say that every cool job in my life (including my current job) is directly attributable to his influence in this world.

There would have been no Magic: The Gathering (which spawned its own industry) or computer and video rpgs (including the juggernaut that is WoW or the game I am so lucky to work on called Guild Wars) without E. Gary Gygax and D&D.

But his impact didn't just impact me and my own personal career, he made thinking on your feet (and rolling dice to make decisions) cool for many millions of people. For that alone, he should have a special place reserved in history (and in the afterlife of his choice). We are all better people today for having played the game he gave us 34 years ago, and all of its offshoots.

The gaming industry has lost its Tolkien, its Shakespeare. I don't think we should let this day pass without spending a moment thinking about the magnitude of his impact on the world.

And then, go out and roll 3d6. May all your rolls be natural 18s, Gary.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Breach the Hull Review

Hey everyone. A friend of mine asked me to review this anthology. It's a good read (the anthology, not necessarily the review), Enjoy.

Breach the Hull Review

I met Mike McPhail through his wife, author Danielle Ackley-McPhail as she and I were ran the East Coast convention circuit. Mike is a huge fan of military SF and this anthology is truly a labor of love.

What Mike understands best is that military SF doesn’t have to be just about epic space battles and high-powered grunts waging war against alien bugs. In fact, Breach the Hull is at its best in stories like “Peter Power Armor” and “Forgotten Causes” by Asimov’s veteran John C. Wright and the two reprints in this edition, Jack McDevitt’s “Cryptic” and “Black to Move” (both originally printed in Asimov’s in the ‘80s), which bring us down out of the stars and delve deep into the human condition. That’s where SF does its best work, even SF of a more military bent.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some great space-faring yarns here. I really liked “Thresher,” which contained some truly innovative tech along with a well-developed story of personal loyalty and honor. And for just plain, edge-of-your-seat, wartime adventure, you don’t want to miss Jeff Lyman’s “Compartment Alpha.” This story also has some cool tech driving the plot, but what brings it to life are the characters, whom you can immediately connect with as they strive to survive in the heat of battle.

The final story in this volume, “Shore Leave,” by the always wonderful CJ Henderson, is an amazing romp through a fanciful future city where the military of many worlds come to relax. But again, it’s not the tech or the guns that make this story work, but the two incredible jarheads at the center of the action. While absolute caricatures, Rocky and Noodles made me believe in them and their often wacky future.

I have to be honest, though, some of the stories in this volume are a bit of a mixed bag. Not all the authors here are seasoned professionals, and it shows at times. It’s not that they’re badly written. No, I enjoyed every story for what it brought to the anthology. But some of the stories here just didn’t feel complete. Some had brilliant ideas and crisp writing, but failed to engage me with their characters. Others pulled me into the stories and made me care about the lives of the inhabitants, but didn’t deliver in the end.

Still I saw definite promise in these newer authors and I would give each of them a look again in the future. In the end, there is more than enough great SF in Breach the Hull for any true fan of the genre, military or not. And without small press anthologies like these that provide a venue for up-and-coming authors, the next crop of McDevitts, Wrights, and Hendersons will languish in obscurity, never given the chance to reach for the stars... and perhaps blow one up.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Visual Journeys

My most recent short story, "Resurrection Man," is now out in Eric Reynolds's latest anthology, Visual Journeys. This hardcover anthology from Hadley rille books, which features both great pulp SF stories from some excellent 21st century authors like Tobias Buckell and Jay Lake, as well as some amazing artwork from such luminaries as Bob Eggleton and Ron Miller, is now available on

If all goes well, I hope to have another, even more exciting announcement about this anthology in the near future. Stay tuned