Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Three Keys to Success in the Kitchen (and with your writing)

I learn a lot about writing a novel when I watch my husband, Bill, work in the kitchen. He doesn't cook often, but when he is called to the stove, he arms himself with determination, sharp tools, and an apron. A recipe acts only as the structure for a dish that he makes his own, and he rarely experiences (what I like to call) "Dinner Fail." Maybe he's always lucky with a chef's knife and a wooden spoon, but every time I watch him, I see him incorporate the same three techniques.

1. Focus.

Good enough is not an option stay focused on excellence
When my husband is in the kitchen making dinner, everyone else is out of the kitchen. There's a look in his eye that says, "talk to me if you must, but don't expect a response." He has a plan, and he knows that success depends on his own execution of the plan. Rambunctious kids in the hallway won't pull him away, and status updates or tweets never cross his mind. In fact, he isn't even on Facebook (oh, the horror!).

When he's cooking, he's just cooking.

And, he never walks away from a recipe in the middle of measuring ingredients.

2. Clean as you go.

So, I guess I should clarify that "just cooking" bit: when he's cooking, he's all about the whole process of meal-making. "Clean as you go" is a given. Let the dirty dishes mount while you chop, stir, and simmer, and the whole process becomes overwhelming. You run out of counter space; the recipe goes missing; chaos ensues.

Welcome, Dinner Fail. 

3. Spice it up.

I mean, Really. Surprise your audience.

spicesOnce, when my husband was in charge of making chili, he threw together more than just onions, meat and beans. He searched the cabinets and the pantry for something totally unexpected, because what's a cook if he isn't inventive? That pot of chili melded together the flavors of cayenne pepper, Tabasco sauce, coffee grounds, and maple syrup.

That's right. Coffee grounds. Never mind the syrup.

It was a "Bill" original, and, well, we're still talking about that chili.

But cooking dinner and writing a novel aren't exactly the same, you say. A novel doesn't get written in two hours or less, and it's much more complicated than "chop, stir, and simmer."

Okay, but there's still plenty to take away here.

When I sit down to write, I could shut down the internet, focus on my task at hand -- be it word count or page edits, filling in plot holes or looking at structure. And, while shitty first drafts have a definite place in my writing process, there is some planning I can do, before I sit down and after my writing time is finished, that may help me organize my limited time more efficiently. Also, I don't need to be afraid to spice up the story with whatever I imagine. As James Scott Bell says in his book, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, cooking - like writing - is "a formula [with] a whole range of outcomes. . . . You still have to add your spices, your skills, your talent" to make the story your own and a success.

And, that's what I'm after, in the kitchen or in writing: a "Christi" original. 

Are there techniques you use in the kitchen that you could be using at your writing desk?


* photo credits: 1. Good enough..., Thierry Draus on Flickr; 2. Spices, Maks Karochkin on Flickr


  1. Cooking and writing, a great combination ... but not simultaneously. I envy your husband's focus. I do make a recipe my own though.

    Nice group blog idea you have. I came through Victoria's FB link. How did I miss this before? Guess I should subscribe. Why are you on Blogger though?

  2. Yes, cooking and writing at the same time makes for two messy ventures.

    Glad you stopped by. Lisa would have to answer about the blog's format, since she so kindly put all the details in place. She's much more tech-savvy than me :)