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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mise en Place

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 4

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the tools you need to cook or write. This week, I want to talk about prep time. If you watch any cooking videos on Netflix and YouTube (My two favorites are Binging with Babish on YouTube and  The Chef Show on Netflix) you will see chefs routinely have all the ingredients they need for a recipe right at hand, often in the exact amounts and separated into cute, little bowls or ramekins.

This is called “mise en place,” which is a fancy French term (like a lot of cooking terms) that means “everything in its place.” Obviously, this beautiful presentation of prepared ingredients is great for videos because it makes the cooking appear effortless and speeds up the process on camera (no need to measure and pour when you can simply pour). But, professional chefs do spend time on preparation prior to cooking. (Well, they have a staff of cooks to do that, but you get the point.) And you can even purchase “mise en place” containers for your kitchen.

Even if you don't have a professional set of specialty bowls to hold all your ingredients, You still need to have things like salt, pepper, and other spices easily at hand while preparing a meal because recipes often call for specific amounts at precise times during the cooking process. You also need to cut up any aromatics (onions, carrots, celery, etc.) ahead of time so you don't have to take time away from stirring a tricky sauce to find and dice the next set of ingredients. 

I actually do the whole mise en place set up when making pizza at home. I dice up onions, olives, mushrooms, and peppers, cook and crumble bacon and sausage ahead of time, chop spinach and, sometimes (if I don't have leftover sauce in the fridge), prepare some marinara. I do all of this well before I start making pizzas. So, while my family sees pizza as a quick meal, there is a whole lot of prep that goes into making that “fast food” fast.

I do all this prep specifically because it allows me to build the pizzas quickly, just like at my favorite pizza chain, Mod Pizza. And, really, any time I am making a sauce or soup or anything that requires more ingredients than just simple, dried herbs, I do all the prep first (and build in the prep time needed to my meal preparation time estimate). If I want to put a family meal on the table at 7 p.m., I generally start chopping onions around 5 p.m. (Note: I use a lot more onions now than I ever used to before I started watching cooking shows.)

From a cooking standpoint, this all makes sense, right? You need to have everything ready to go once you light the stove so you don't end up scorching the pan while you chop the next ingredient. That's not to say you cant improvise in the middle of making a dish and go search your spice drawer for something to add a little pizazz. I do this all the time (and I will talk about improvisation in a future blog). But, in general, I think we can all agree it is better to prepare your ingredients ahead of time.

Well, guess what? The same goes for your writing. Surprise! Okay, I'm sure no one is all that astounded by this revelation. If you want your writing to have any depth beyond the words on the page, any lasting legacy beyond the rising and falling action in the plot, you need to spend some time on research, and not simply to get your facts right.

In fact, the best writers spend a great deal of time on research before writing a single word. Robert J. Sawyer, a highly successful writer friend of mine, does more research before writing than any author I know. I asked him how much time he spent researching Robert Oppenheimer and the events surrounding the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War 2 before he wrote The Oppenheimer Alternative

Rob told me he spent an entire year doing research before writing a lick of the novel. He lists 132 books in the bibliography at the back of the novel that he used as research. Rob says he read about half of those cover-to-cover and skimmed the rest or used them as references materials while writing.

Now, Rob is a successful author who can afford to spend a year on research, but that doesn't mean the rest of us should skimp on our preparations. The fiction I write is mostly set in other people's worlds. That doesn't mean all my work is done for me, though. I must read what has been written about the characters I am using so they feel right to readers. I need to research the worlds I am writing in so I don't make mistakes when describing places that have appeared elsewhere. Whenever possible, I try to do the bulk of this research before I start writing. 

So, what kind of preparations do you need make before writing? Let's take a quick look at some of the “ingredients” you need to prepare before you begin writing your next story.


Obviously, you need to know what your story is about before you write it, but there is more going on here than that, and may levels of preparation. I often write detailed outlines before I start on a novel. but other authors find chapter-by-chapter outlines too constraining. I actually wrote Strangled by Death, my upcoming Kolchak: The Night Stalker novel, with only a rudimentary outline, and this process can be very freeing. 

However, at the very least, most authors will lay out a plot structure before just diving in. You want to know where the action will rise and fall so you can build the tension effectively from beginning to end. The three-act structure isn't just a cliche in writing, it's a useful tool for telling compelling stories.


Again, this is a fairly obvious ingredient. But this is an area where lack of preparation can really doom a story. If your characters lack dimension and depth because you failed to put in the time to flesh them out, they won't pop off the page. Not only won't they be memorable, but readers will fail to connect with them at all. They will become little more than stick figures you move around to push the plot forward, and it will show.

So, before you write, get to know your characters. Delve into their personal histories, find out how they think, what they like and hate, how they speak, and how they react when under pressure.And, if you create a minor character while writing who is there to do more than just move the plot along, take the story off the burner for a moment and take some time to prepare a backstory or character study of that figure before you move on.


Preparing the right setting for your story is just as important as creating strong characters. If you're writing a story set in the real world, setting the story in a big city versus a small town makes a statement. Setting it in Chicago versus Seattle makes a statement. Setting it in Europe or Asia or South America makes it a very different story than setting it in America. 

Then, once you choose the setting, you MUST put in the work to make sure you get that setting right. If you're creating a fantasy or science fiction world, you need to know how the realities of that world work. Is there magic? How does it function? Is there technology? How does it affect the world and the people in it? Many fantasy novelists spend years creating their worlds before they even start writing. And don't think you're off the hook by setting the story in the real world. If you get the names of streets wrong or don't understand the geography of the setting, you will ruin the story for anyone who knows that locale.


Much of this category could be covered under character and location. You need to know and understand the history of these elements just as deeply as you know their present. For example, if you set a story that turns on racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama you absolutely need to know how the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 impacted the civil rights movement.

Even in fictional settings, however, history is an important element of a story. As I mentioned in location above, you will need to spend time creating the history of the fictional setting for your story, and know how it impacts the current situation where you have placed your characters. If you don't spend time researching or creating this history, the world of your story may feel hollow or fake and could fall apart on close inspection.

One last piece of advice about history, that I believe I first learned from Tracy Hickman at a panel on world building. He said that your world must work. It must function for the people living in it. It also should be basically at peace prior to the beginning of your story (at least on the surface). Your story begins the moment something changes that disrupts the status quo.


If you are writing a story where the disruption that kicks off the plot affects a lot more people than just the main characters, you will also want to spend time researching the impact that this disruption will have on your setting, your characters, and even your plot. 

Let me provide an example. In one of my favorite Robert J. Sawyer novels, The Terminal Experiment, the main character accidentally invents a device that can detect the soul when it leaves the body. The story itself, is about the personal journey of Dr. Peter Hobson after the existence of this device (and proof of the human soul) goes public. But, throughout the book, Rob provides glimpses of the repercussions of this hugely impactful event on the world around the main character.

On a more personal level, spending time before you start writing considering how the events of the story will impact the main character — how those repercussions and ramifications will weigh on the character and, potentially, change the character — will make your character's story more impactful for the reader.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Of Side Dishes and Subplots

 The Nexus of Writing and Cooking, Part 3

I spend a decent amount of time thinking about what side dishes I will prepare to accompany the main course of a meal. As mentioned earlier in this series, I grew up in the Midwest, so was (and still am) a big fan of meat and potatoes dinners, and my early dinners often were variations on this theme.

Some things just go together, right? Steak and baked potatoes. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Pot roast with carrot and potato wedges cooked in the pot. 

This cadence went further, with fish and rice, fried chicken and corn on the cob, spaghetti and meatballs (and garlic bread), and, of course, one of our big favorites (to say anyway, because it's fun) — Pork Chops and Applesauce. (Try saying that like you're bugs bunny pretending to be a gangster. Trust me, it's hilarious.)

Over the years, I have tried to break out of the tried-and-true side dish combos to find meals that are fun, filling, and flavorful. I learned how to make risotto as well as rice. I found and created recipes for scalloped potatoes instead of making them from a box. I stocked my fridge with veggies beyond iceberg lettuce and carrots to make salads with multi-layered flavors. And I tried out different ways to cook vegetables, like roasting, steaming, and (our favorite) sautéing with shallots.

So, when the question, "What's for dinner?" comes up, I invariably find myself standing in front of the freezer looking at my choices. I can't settle on a main dish until I find the right set of side dishes to serve with it, side dishes that complement the main dish, work well alongside it and add to its flavor instead of fighting those flavors.

One day, recently, while standing in front of the freezer, I realized that I do the same thing when I  craft subplots to add to a story. It occurred to me that subplots and side dishes are nearly identical in form and function in their separate arenas. 

So, let me go through a few key similarities between subplots and side dishes, as I see them, and a couple points to consider when adding them to your main plots and main dishes.

Fill the Plate

One of the main things that both subplots and side dishes do is to help fill your plate. Writers can't always fill an entire 300-page novel with a single plot (and for the reasons listed below, most don't want to). Subplots help fill the pages of the book. They are extra little stories being told alongside the main story, and as such, need a beginning, middle, and end, as well as some growth for the characters involved in that plot.

Side dishes are exactly the same. Plating is important to the proper presentation of a meal, and unless you are in what we used to call "hoity-toity" restaurants that put a single bean in the middle of a plate with a splash of sauce, you need more than one course to fill the plate. That's where the side dishes come in.

Support and Reflect

A subplot's real main job, though, is to support the main plot and, often, to act as a mirror to shine a light on the themes and action happening in the main plot. For example, in my short story, Banner-Jarl, in the Uprising anthology, I tell two stories simultaneously, one in the present and one in the past. In the main, present-day story, the main character, Grendl (a bounty hunter) is chasing a bounty through the Underhive. In the sublot, set in the past, It is Grendl who is being chased as he tries to escape to the Underhive.

Side dishes also need to support and reflect their main dishes. This is one reason why sauces are made using the same pan used to brown the meat, so you can capture the fond (meat crust baked onto the pan after browning) into the flavors of the sauce. Sweet side dishes (like applesauce for pork, pineapple chunks served with ham, and cranberry sauce with turkey) provide a nice mirror to the savory aspects of the main dish.

Provide a Break

 Another way to use a subplot is as a break from the main action. This can be done to provide a breather for the reader after a particularly emotional scene or to heighten the tension after a cliffhanger. Switching to the subplot for a scene or a chapter while the main character's life hangs in the balance is a great way to keep readers turning pages. Bringing in your comic relief character to provide some light humor after a particularly heavy scene filled with intense emotions gives both the reader and the characters a little space to breathe before you head back to the main plot.

This works almost identically for side dishes. A mouthful of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes (or mashed butternut squash, which we really love now) in between tearing bits of spicy barbecued beef from massive ribs gives your mouth and taste buds a break. Cold sides like coleslaw, salad, fruit cups provide a nice break from steaming-hot mouthfuls of fried chicken or fish. A nice, light, steamed vegetable like broccoli pairs well with a dense, inch-thick steak.

Something for Everyone

Another wonderful benefit of having subplots in your stories and side dishes on the table, is that they help you provide something for every palate. What happens if you reader doesn't like the characters in your main plot? They stop reading, that's what. But if you have side characters in there that provide different outlooks on life, have different issues than the main character, are different ages, genders, backgrounds, etc., you have a better chance of finding some commonality with various readers so they find something they like in your story.

This goes for side dishes as well. Not a big fan of the spice in the barbecue rub, well fill up on corn and coleslaw. Don't really like brussel sprouts? Well, take a second helping of roasted potatoes instead. This is one reason, I like making roasted vegetables. For one thing, it's a great way to cook brussel sprouts. But, also, if you're roasting carrots, potatoes, and cauliflower along with the sprouts, there's something in there that almost everyone will like.

Don't Overshadow

One last point to consider about how subplots and side dishes are similar is that you never want them to overshadow your main plot/main dish. The star of the show is the main dish or plotline. That's what sells the book. That's what you tell your family is for dinner. You don't say we're having brussel sprouts for dinner with a side of steak. And you don't describe "Much Ado About Nothing" as the story of some bumbling cops in Verona.

Like a side dish, which takes up only a single section of the plate, a good subplot only occupies a fraction of the story (probably less than one-quarter at most). If your subplot starts taking over the main plot, it may be time to take a look at what story you are writing and make some changes. If that sub plot is more interesting and the characters more alive than your main plot, consider switching the emphasis of the story to the subplot. If you've done your job and the two plots are complementing and/or mirroring one another, this should work just fine, although it might be a tough sell to your editor and publisher if they were expecting a story about the main character.

Another way that subplots and side dishes can overshadow, though, is in quality and flavor. If your subplot is way more interesting than your main plot, you need to do something to spice up your main plot. If your side dish is the star of the plate, then you may not have spent enough time making sure the main dish is up to the quality that your diners are expecting.

Subplot/Side Dish Synergy

One important point to consider when adding a subplot to your story or choosing a side dish for a meal is how they work with, add to, or complement the main dish/plot. Obviously, you don't want to detract from the overall enjoyment of the meal or story by adding something unexpected. While sweet and sour sauce works because of the combination of flavors, A highly tangy, acidic side dish like a salad with strong onions and peppers might not be the best choice to put with a rack of sweet, Carolina barbecue ribs.

And, yes, comic relief can help cut the tension of a highly emotional scene. One of my favorite uses of this is in Hamilton when they cut to Jefferson saying, "Can we get back to politics now?" immediately after the emotional scenes surrounding the death of Hamilton's son, Phillip. That being said, you won't often see a dramatic main story interspersed with a subplot that is all comedy all the time. 

Instead, you want the two stories to play off one another, delve into the same themes (often from different angles), and even hit high points and low points together as the two stories progress throughout the book. In my novel, Soulless Fury, two almost identically important stories are happening at the same time as one character is chasing the other. The viewpoint switches back and forth and both characters suffer losses during their separate stories. These happen right before I bring the two characters together, so they are, separately, at similar points in their story arcs when the confrontation occurs.

This dovetailing of plot and sublot is one of the most exciting uses of the subplot. How often have you read a story where the character arc in the subplot hits a climax near the end of the book and that minor character — because of where they are in their arc at that moment in time — has some small but dramatic impact on the story of the main character? That is subplot synergy at its best.

In the world of side dishes, I can't think of any better example of this synergy than garlic bread. It's savory, spicy with the same spices found in the spaghetti sauce, crispy where the spaghetti is soft, and — best of all — can be used to soak up extra sauce from your plate or as a base for pouring sauce on top to make a pizza later on.


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