Confessions of a Cookbook Loving Ranter

I’m reviewing a lot of cookbooks lately. I’m incredibly okay with this. I have a thing for cookbooks that comes relatively close to rivaling my thing for journals. For something that’s generally short and seemingly easy, recipes are really hard to get right, especially with all the copyright issues around them. With the ever growing number of cooking themed blogs and books out there, it’s always interesting to see what new ideas people can bring to the topic. Like all genres of writing, there are issues at play. And since those issues are currently giving me an eye tic, both as a reviewer and a barely functional home cook, it seems as good a time as any to talk ’em out.

Don’t leave things out.
Seriously, an ingredients list needs to be complete. By this, I mean that literally every edible thing that goes into that freakin’ dish is mentioned in the ingredients list. Don’t tell me half way through the processes that I needed to have salt and pepper, or cold water at a certain temperature, or whatever other random crap you happen to have remembered at that point. Include that bastard in the ingredients list.

That’s the entire freakin’ point of the list of ingredients: it tells me what I need to use to make a dish. It’s your job as the writer of a recipe to have that shit sorted long before I ever lay eyes upon it. Typically, people using a recipe just write out the ingredients list and go shopping or prepping from there. Which means that, unless they’re aware you’ve left things out and are checking over your recipe like a frustrated teacher in marking season, they’re going to miss ingredients. That’s an almighty pain in the ass, and one that doesn’t make the writer look good.

If I have to stop what I’m doing to chill water or make ice- or worse, head out to the shops- I’m not going to be happy, especially if it means having to start the cook all over again. If I have to stop and go grab or prepare something mid way through a cook, I’m hoping every time you bake, it burns. I’m hoping you confuse salt and sugar for the rest of your natural life. If I have to red pen a book to be able to use the recipes in it, I’m wishing you cookery ills like you wouldn’t believe.

Conversely, if it’s in the ingredients list, it needs to be used in the recipe. There’s a surprising number of recipes out there that call for an ingredient that never gets used. If you as the writer have skipped a step, the reader has zero chance of perfectly recreating the dish. And now they’ve got a random ingredient they need to do something with. This is not a good way to look professional, or have people wanting to try more of your recipes.

Keep it freakin’ simple.
This ‘I’m gonna say this recipe has three steps, but each step has, like, 18 processes’ thing frustrates the hell out of me. So let’s clear up that issue. This is the point of a recipe: in the simplest language possible, a recipe tells someone who has never made the dish before exactly what they have to do to make that freakin’ dish.

That’s it. It’s meant to be simple, clear, and direct. If you’re showing off, you’re doing it wrong. If it’s wordy and rambling or going off on tangents, you’re doing it wrong. If it’s an intimidating block of tiny text with no white space, you might actually be Satan.

Too many processes jammed together make it easier for people to skip over steps. Bad things happen when people skip steps. At best, they wonder why the hell you created and hocked the steaming pile of grossness congealing on their plates, and never buy another of your books or try another of your recipes. At worst, they flood your Goodreads or Amazon reviews with hate because the food tasted like barf.

Seriously, if people have to rewrite your recipe to be able to use it, you’re doing it wrong.

There are no ad breaks in recipes. 
If the information doesn’t directly impact the process, it goes in the notes section. What that means is that you don’t interrupt the processes to shill products. Yes, I know you’re paid to say it. No, I don’t actually care why you’re hocking that particular product. I don’t need the sales pitch rammed brutally into the processes.

Fine, have a tools list where you say to use a particular brand of product. Or even go the Tupperware™ route and use the item’s full branded name in the processes if you really feel you must (though that’s irritating). Whatever. But if you really feel the need to declare, in detail, your love of a certain brand of spatula, just add it into a notes section at the end of the recipe. People skimming over the sales pitches are more likely to miss a process, which tends to bring about barf-tasting food and the urge to set fire to the cookbook responsible.

Spell check is your BFF. So is proper grammar and punctuation. 
Does anyone else remember the ‘freshly ground black people‘ screw up? Yeah. Don’t do that.

But also? Make sure it makes sense. Capitalise brand names if you’re using them, make sure you have deleted all the words you were meant to. Read it out loud to yourself. No, really, it’s the best way to find screw ups in your writing. Find yourself a tame English teacher, and give them a print out and a red pen. Find the angriest home cook you know, and ask them to tell you what they think. Not the nice people who’ll tell you it’s wonderful while quietly throwing out their attempts at cooking it. The ones who’ll call you out on things with flailing gestures and rich profanity.

Get it to the point that anyone who stumbles onto that recipe can look at it and believe they could make it. Give us pretty pictures (and if you need help figuring out how to do that, look at Kirsten Tibballs ‘Chocolate‘ for some phenomenal visual foodgasms) and white space so our eyes don’t bleed. White space is your friend. It tells the brain (rightly or wrongly) that it’s an easier recipe- which means better chances of success, and more people are likely to try it.

You know those recipes that make you think you’re capable of achieving them? Those ones that inspire you to try, those ones that become a family favourite?

Yeah. Make that kind of recipe.

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An Apology to the Writers I Annoy

I wrote just under 11k yesterday- yes, my brain hurts right now, even as I’m gearing up to write 11k more today. I’m participating in the Queensland Writers Centre ‘Rabbit Hole’ event- three days of writing in the State Library. Nothing else. Just writing.

I love the chance to sit my butt down and make stuff happen. But I realised yesterday that I’m increasingly wary of writing my daily word count on the board. After I wrote my word count yesterday, one of the other writers asked me if I use a lot of small words, or just write ‘a’ over and over. That it happened in front of two writers I really admire only made it more mortifying.

Because these people don’t know me, they don’t know that I panic in these moments, and end up sounding like a complete bitch because my words get jumbled, and I’m trying to get the hell out of the situation, and what would be witty in a less tense conversation loses its charm in all the self-recriminations. Also? Pretty sure I have resting bitch-face of the vocal chords.

The sad part is that it used to be funny to me when people said stuff like that, but now it’s just painful because it’s always followed up by people taking my achievement as a personal insult, or a reason to invalidate their own efforts. Always.

If you’ve never had someone take something you’re proud of and beat themselves about the head with it, I can assure you it isn’t fun. It’s hard to maintain your personal pride when it feels like your success is actively hurting other people. And if you’re anything like me, it ends up with a leap into ‘helpful reassuring mode’, and putting your own efforts down in order to make other people feel better about their achievements.

Not okay.

I don’t think people are trying to freak me out, or trying to be mean. I just think we all get caught up in the BS idea that there’s One True Way To Write™, and if you’re not doing it that way, you’re a fraud of a writer and should have all your pens and tech thrown onto a bonfire. People, especially writers, seem to think that all writers should be insanely productive and type 10k a day without breaking a sweat and publish multiple books a year while raising a family and working full time, all the while learning how to speak fluent Mandarin and building orphanages in Africa. In heels like that chick in Jurassic World™.

Uh, no.

However much you write is perfect. I’m not being an asshole when I tell you that. I actually, genuinely mean it, so please stop with the eye rolls and scowls when you seem to ask me for validation and I give it to you. Whatever works for you is freakin’ phenomenal. There are billions of people in the world who don’t get to write 10 words a day for their own amusement- so yeah, you’re kicking ass if you hit any kind of milestone. On the other hand, if life’s kicking your ass and you take a day for you, that’s just as brilliant. Taking care of yourself isn’t something you should feel bad about. Whatever works for you.

What it comes down to is this: we all write differently.

The people today who ‘wrote the least’? They weren’t sitting on Facebook all day, they were editing as they went. They were crafting sentences, and fixing them along the way, and they’re going to have an easier time of it in edits than I will.

I respect the hell out of that dedication. Right now, though, it just isn’t me.

Me? I can’t see the plot holes until they’re on the page. Sometimes, that’s not an issue. Other times, I write a dozen or so new versions to fix those plot holes, get disheartened, and put the story in a drawer to fester and die. I’d like to not keep doing that, so I’m changing the way I do things. I’m not trying to write perfectly, or even brilliantly at times like this. I’m just figuring out the story, and challenging myself to get something down rather than contemplating it for another few years and still winding up with big-ass plot holes everywhere. I struggle with character voice sometimes, too, and this helps me figure out who the characters really are.

It’s like writing fanfic for my own stories- it takes the stress out of writing because it doesn’t have to be perfect. And because it’s just faffing about on a page contemplating things, it’s easier to hit those bigger milestones. If I was editing the shit out of what I wrote? I’d have maybe 1k. Probably far less, because when it’s about crafting the best sentence possible, I’ll stare at a sentence for an hour and cry.

My way of writing and editing would drive other people mad, and the reverse is certainly true. But it doesn’t mean that anyone is going about it wrong.

I said I wanted to apologise to other writers, so here it is:

If you’re feeling insecure about your writing based on the word count I make at a writing event, I’m really sorry. I’m sorry that you feel like you have to compete with the writers around you. because you don’t. You’re a writer. You don’t have to prove yourself to me, or to anyone else. You’re not my competition. I am my competition (and sometimes my friend Luke is too, but only when it’s agreed upon in advance).

I’m sorry that you’re not celebrating your achievements, because you deserve to be. Word counts are arbitrary numbers that say more about methodology than talent. Whatever you achieve is brilliant, and I wish you could see that. I get why people don’t, because most days I think my writing is shit and I’m a total hack. Doesn’t stop me wishing other people could see their creative worth, though.

This isn’t me playing Elizabeth Gilbert and saying I have shit worked out. I really, really don’t. The majority of my writing life is me sitting, wondering how the hell to get to the other side of an issue. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that writing a novel and getting it published is really, really hard. It’s a hard industry, and I’m pretty sure it’s made harder when we’re all running around kicking the crap out of our own work. If I’m dismissing my own work, what right do I have to expect anyone else to take it seriously?

Frankly, my work deserves better. So this is me, refusing to play anymore. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to keep dismissing my work to validate yours when everyone’s efforts are already valid as hell.

Holding drafting work up against someone else’s, even if it’s just to make them feel better about their work, is like throwing two puppies in a cage and making them fight to the death.

It’s wrong. There’s no reason to do it, at all, and about a billion really good reasons not to. And when it’s all over you’re left with the bloody wrecks of two formerly beautiful things that didn’t want to fight it out in the first place.

I’m not okay with that.

Zen and the Art of Editing 3: My Way

The first time I tried Nanowrimo, I wrote a series of snippets that have gone absolutely nowhere in the years since I wrote them.

The story itself is a good idea, and I want to finish it one day. But I’ll rewrite it from scratch. Those little snippets really didn’t work for me. They were all over the place, and I couldn’t really keep up with what was happening when. It was a good learning experience (pro tip: if something goes badly, it’s not a failure, it’s a ‘learning experience’).

I learned that I work best with a big hunk of (ordered) text, an even bigger coffee, and a red pen. Coffee makes me a grumpy, harsh little editing demon, and things I’d normally overlook get picked up so much easier.

Because one of my superpowers is losing sheets of paper, I bind my manuscript. Because my lecturers and tutors totally proved the validity of it to me, I print one sided and double spaced. Yes, it’s a big paper and ink suck, but it works for me. Remember my first editing post, when I said ‘do what works for you’? It’s still true.

Like I said in the second post, I dump my manuscript in a drawer, and jump into another project, rather than immediately starting to edit. But once I’m distant enough from the story to be a good editor, it’s ready and waiting for me. I’ll settle in with a coffee, and scrawl with a red pen until I’m over it. Then I move on to something else.

I have rules for my editing time, though:

  • No editing when tired
  • No editing when the neighbour is playing with his power tools (or when his kids are having their regularly scheduled tantrums)
  • If I find myself unfocused on the story, I put it away. There’s no sense wasting time on something I’ll have to re-edit later on.
  • No editing when my flatmate is home, because we inevitably end up chatting while I work, and that makes it pointless.

Mostly, it boils down to being in a quiet space while focused solely on the task at hand.

What are your top editing tips?

Zen and the Art of Editing: Let It Go

I promise, I will try very, very hard to keep the Frozen quotes to a minimum.

One of my biggest editing issues is being too close to the story. I’ve spent large amounts of time, energy, and emotion writing a story, and by the time I’ve written ‘the end’, I’m usually thinking of it as my little word-baby.

As a general rule of thumb, no-one is okay with crossing out and recreating bits of their baby. When was the last time you saw a newborn covered in red pen marks? It doesn’t count if they have older siblings.

I can admit it: at that point, I’m too attached to do what needs to be done. Sometimes I love a character too much to put them through Hell. Sometimes there’s a scene or a line that I absolutely adore, but that doesn’t actually work in the story. Either way, until I can let go of what doesn’t serve the story, my attempting an edit is about as helpful as lying on a train track to check how close the oncoming train is.

So, rather than banging my head against proverbial walls, I print out and bind my manuscript, and promptly dump it down the bottom of my desk drawer for a while. Maybe I start writing a new story, maybe I start editing something else. Maybe I do both. Either way, I get good and absorbed in another project before I even think about editing my latest MS. Focusing elsewhere is the quickest way for me to emotionally disconnect from a draft.

When I’m writing, I’m focusing so much on the story that I get precious about it. But treating a draft like a perfect little baby is the quickest way to destroy any chance of making the story the best it can be.

The truth is, stories are not babies. They’re collections of words and letters designed to be offered up to those around us. It’s my job as a pen-monkey to try and make the stories make sense, and to make people glad they bothered reading at all.

Editing and the Art of Zen

In many ways, writing is easy. Taking what you’ve churned out and making it beautiful? That’s the hard part. Ernest Hemingway said to write drunk and edit sober, and though I don’t necessarily think alcohol helps much, I can see his point.

Writing is this mythologised journey where we get to skip along millions of potential pathways, gamboling about like coffee-addled bunnies and building and destroying worlds like cruel and capricious gods

chuck is god

But editing takes those seemingly random outbursts and explorations, and wrangles them into a clear and cohesive whole. It’s the difference between a cheerful wander through a meadow, and a military action.

So what’s the secret to editing?

A basic Google search will show you about a billion answers, most utterly contradictory. Some people argue for writing a paragraph, editing it, and moving on. Others take the Nanowrimo approach, and edit a full draft rather than bits and pieces. Some say three different editing sessions, some multitask. Some say hard copy, some say screen edits.

You could spend a lifetime reading how-to guides without ever really cracking the code.

So let me save you (and myself) 50+ years of frustrated reading: do what works for you. Try styles that interest you, but if they don’t work, ditch them. Ignore the gurus that tell you that you must do things a certain way, because frankly, they’re not you. When you do read about editing (despite how frustrating it can be, it’s still quite helpful), take the bits that work for you, and ditch the rest. Sure, your favourite author might work best by sitting for three days straight, editing their manuscript with a gleeful kind of ruthlessness. But if small, targeted bursts of editing work best for you, then go with it. If you find you work best with a blue pen and a highlighter, do it.

In the end, the objective is to make your story the best it can possibly be. To do that, you need to find editing methods that work for you, and allow you to focus on actually reading and editing rather than trying to remember the steps of your process.

Happy editing!