Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Flavor vs. Bake

First up, if you're at all interested in the self publishing business, go and check out the latest Author Earnings Report. It's one of their better ones and paints an amazing picture of the current Amazon book market (which is pretty much the #1 most important market for most indie authors currently). In addition to mapping out the market share of indie books as compared to small and large publishers, they also take a pretty comprehensive stab at figuring out just how much money Amazon itself makes per day from the indie marketplace, and damn. Let's just say I'm not worried about Amazon giving up the indie ghost anytime soon!

Okay, okay, enough business, let's talk craft! Delicious, delicious craft...

Writing Wednesday: Flavor vs. Bake

If you follow me on Twitter (and if no, why not? Come hang out!! Let's be cool kids!), you've probably picked up that I'm a pretty big fan of a certain reality cooking show from across the pond. That's right, I'm talking about my addiction du jour, The Great British Bake Off!!

Tell it like it is, Mary!
Before I begin...OMG WHY ISN'T ALL OF THIS SHOW AVAILABLE IN AMERICA? Do you not like money in England? Because I would pay--oh God, how I would pay--to own all six seasons of this amazing show in glorious HD. BUT NO. All I get is one measly season on Netflix and scraps of the others through, um, methods I'm not going to talk about on the blog >.> 

Moving on!

My love of reality television competition shows for creative endeavors is well documented on this blog. But while I loved the shit out of Project Runway, I think I love the Great British Bake Off even more for the following reasons:
  1. The hosts (but mostly Mary Berry).
  2. The food.
  3. The accents! (Particularly the excessive use of the word "chuffed")
  4. I learn a ton about baking every episode.
  5. EVERYONE IS SO GOD DAMN NICE! (No cast drama, everyone seems genuinely happy just to be there, just a super pleasant and positive watching experience all around!)
  6. Sue's terrible puns.
  7. Mary Berry, again.
All that said, I think what I love most about this show (and the part that actually pertains to writing, which we'll get to in just a second) is the focus on the perfect marriage of technical skill and creative brilliance required to win.

In Project Runway, all that mattered to win was "does the dress look good?" Because of this single requirement, it wasn't uncommon to see models going down the runway in dresses held together with hot glue and staples. Yes, technical skill was praised, but at the end of the day, no one was ever expected to wear those outfits again. They only had to look good for the thirty seconds it took the model to walk down the runway. Technical sewing skills were valued (and vitally important to actually finishing your garment), but at the end of the day, creativity and aesthetics were everything. It didn't matter if the dress was falling off the model so long as the idea behind it was amazing and innovative. As the hosts liked to say, this is Project Runway, not Project Seamstress.

The Great British Bake Off takes a very different approach. If you're trying to win over the GBBO judges (Paul Hollywood, professional baker, and Mary Berry, cook book writer and immortal baking goddess) it's not just to have creative flavors or lovely decorations. The bake itself--how you actually make your food--must be perfect to its form. Cakes must be moist, bread must be well risen, pies must have crust that's perfect and flaky on the top and bottom, custards must be properly set, and so forth. Whatever you are making, it has to look good, it has to taste good, and it has to be well executed. 

This total package is really important, because unlike the clothes on Project Runway (which only have to look good, and then only for as long as it takes for them to get down the runway) the produce of The Great British Bake Off must be consumed in order to be judged. You can't just look at a cake and say "Oh, it's good." You have to eat that sucker, and if the middle of that beautiful cake is raw or the bottom is burned, that's a problem. It doesn't matter how amazing your creative flavors were or how beautifully you piped your icing if your cake is inedible because you didn't take the time or have the technical skills to bake it properly.

And this is where my love of the GBBO merges into my profession, because all the points I made in the paragraph above also apply to writing. To steal the language of the GBBO, a properly executed book is all about balancing your creative elements and flourishes--the flavor--with proper technical execution--the bake

Just like in cooking, flavor in a book is what makes the story uniquely interesting. It's the author's own creative flare. The hooks and flourishes and fantastic characters and unique setting and all that stuff that we can only get from this novel. When we say "I loved this!" flavor is often what we're talking about: the unique feeling and flare that brings us back to a certain world or series or writer again and again. 

This is SUPER important. Just as a good chef is known for the amazing flavors she creates, a good writer is known for their incredible creativity. Food has to taste delicious and books need to be interesting. Both of these come down to flavor, the creative flourish, but in books and cooking, flavor alone is not enough.

If I had to create a GBBO drinking game, I'd get everyone hammered by having people take a shot every time Paul or Mary bemoaned the shame of a bake with wonderful flavor but terrible execution. Every challenge, there's always someone with a dish that sounds heavenly and ends up a plate of slop because they failed to execute the technical aspects of their idea properly. It sounded so good in theory, but in practice, it was only half baked. Sometimes literally.

As someone who reads a LOT of books--NY published, self published, and as yet to be published--this is the single most common problem I encounter. Writers with great ideas, good flavor, and no idea how to execute them properly. I can't tell you how many times I've read the blurb for a book, gotten super excited because it sounded amazing, only to put the thing down five pages in because the writer messed up some basic technical aspect such as pacing or characterization.

Just as in baking, a lot of this comes down to experience. Fresh strawberries in your cake might sound like a fantastic idea, but in practice those strawberries are just going to turn to liquid the second the heat hits them and your bake will end up a soggy mess. The experienced baker knows this and takes precautions, or avoids fresh strawberries all together, but unless the amateur has read this advice previously, they can only learn from the mistake and move on. This is how amateurs become experienced, and it's why practicing the technical side of craft is every bit as important as creativity. One simply can not fly without the other.

But, of course, there's a flip side to this as well. On the GBBO, many contestants try to play it safe by baking simple recipes; tried and true favorites they're confident they won't mess up. When this happens, the inevitable warning from Paul and Mary is that the simpler you go, the more perfect you have to be in your technical execution. Without the creative flare and risks of bold flavoring, there's nothing to excuse technical missteps, and even when you bake it perfectly, you still run the risk of being boring. Even perfection might not be enough when you don't bring anything new to the party.

This is the second most common problem I encounter with the books I read. I can't tell you how many times writers have come to me a finished, polished book and asked me why it isn't selling. When I look at the book, it might have minor technical flaws, but most of the time the plot, characters, and setting are perfectly serviceable. It's a fine book--a good bake--but it's just not interesting. The flavor is bland, and so readers aren't interested.

This is by far the more frustrating problem to deal with. Technical problems are fixable, but how do you have better ideas? You can nurture your creativity by reading good books, watching great movies, looking at inspiring art, and otherwise consuming other people's amazing ideas, but if you can't generate amazing ideas of your own, no amount of technical expertise or perfection is going to save you. 

This isn't to say success is guaranteed. It's not. You can have an amazing story perfectly told and still fall flat. That said, success is much easier and far more likely if you do everything in your power to achieve the total package every time. This is not easy, or even achievable with every project. Every baker on the GBBO inevitably has a disaster somewhere along the line, but the contestants who make it to the finals are inevitably the bakers who have consistently produced good bakes that look and taste great. Likewise, the authors you see who are doing well are not necessarily artists who produce perfection every time, but rather, writers who can consistently deliver interesting, exciting stories that are well told and well presented with good covers and hooky blurb.

All of this is, of course, nothing new, but too often I run into writers who get their panties in a bunch over one element of this balance while ignoring the rest. Self publishing folks especially like to hem and haw and wring their hands over their marketing or covers while completely ignoring the fact that their opening pages are boring, or their ending sucks. I've seen amazingly creative works with killer ideas dissolve into giant messes because the writer didn't know how to properly handle their plot and character arcs and technically fine books that fizzled because the author got hold of some incredibly stupid idea and refused to let it go. 

Obviously, all of these are big problems, but the most frustrating part for me is that, unlike baking a cake on the GBBO, publishing a book is not a performance art. You have plenty of time to address and correct all of these mistakes before you give your book to your audience, and failing to do so is, to me, the greatest sin a writer can commit. Your book doesn't have to be perfect, no one's book is, but like a cake in a bakery case, it should be well flavored, well baked, and well presented. This is the bare minimum for a professional product. Anything less is an insult to your customer/reader irregardless of whether you're self publishing or trying to sell your novel to a publishing house.

So if you're a writer, and you're having problems getting people to bite on your book, the best thing you can do is step back and look at your novel objectively as a whole. Ideally, what you want is a uniquely interesting product that is also technically well done and well packaged. Just as you wouldn't buy a cake that didn't look good, taste good, and was well baked, readers aren't going to but a book that's a mess in any of these areas. But that's just the minimum. If you want to create a real hit or bestseller, then you can't just tick the boxes. You have to make the cronut of fiction, something amazing and unique and perfectly executed and so insanely delicious and addictive people will line up around the block to get their hands on it. 

The pastry that brought a nation to its knees...
Now, obviously, you can't pull perfection like that out of your hat every time, but that level of amazing--not mere "good enough"--should always be the goal you aim for. That way, if you fall short, you'll probably still land well past the finish line. And if the worst happens and you fail utterly, at least you did so while daring greatly, which is both noble and highly educational. As every creative reality competition (GBBO included) will teach you: boring is the ultimate sin. You always learn more and get more credit from taking creative risks than you do by playing it safe.

I know I'm setting a pretty high standard here, but honestly, if your goal is to write professionally, that's the bar. That's where other professional writers are working, it's what readers expect, and it's what you need to be aiming for in your work. One of the highest praises the judges on the GBBO can offer is calling something professional, because in baking as in writing, professional is expected to be the top level of quality: a perfect balance of technical expertise, creativity, and presentation. Is it easy? Of course not. Is it doable? Absolutely! But like any creative skill performed at a high level, it's going to take practice and a refusal to accept mediocrity in any element of your work. Like Mary Berry always says, you need to strive for absolute perfection. You might not get it, but simply by setting the bar that high, you should achieve a level of professional quality that you otherwise might not have pushed hard enough to grasp, and that's what it's all about.

Let's make something wonderful!

And thus concludes another Writing Wednesday! I hope you enjoyed this attempt to justify my obsessive GBBO fandom in my professional life. If you'd like more writing posts (including actual How Tos that aren't just excuses to talk about my favorite shows) click on the Writing label or just check in here every Wednesday. I post new craft blogs every week with writing business posts in between, so check me out! If you don't feel like checking in all the time, though (and really, who does?) you can follow me on the social media of your choice (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+) for live updates on all new content as well as useful links and other writerly stuff!

Thank you as always for reading, and I wish you the very best of luck in all your writing (and baking!) endeavors.

Yours always,


ninthmuse (roz m) said...

Actually, PBS has been running some of the early episodes.

Christina Ochs said...

This is a great analogy! And now that I think about it, I often use "baking language" when trying to figure out why a book I'm reading isn't working for me. "Falls flat," "half-baked," and "missing ingredients" come to mind.

As a writer, understanding how fierce the competition is makes me push myself beyond just good enough. I know perfection isn't achievable, but I try to get to a point where the book I'm working on is the very best I can make it with all the tools at my disposal right now.

Hisham El-Far said...


Now I'm hungry! 😈

Kessie said...

I must look up this show! My kids are addicted to Pioneer Woman, because "nice" is hard to find on TV these days. :-)
You're right about the high bar of professionalism. I look at writers like Meredith Nicholson (House of a Thousand Candles) or Maggie Steifvater (Raven Boys) and weep at the absolute perfection of their work. (I have yet to find a book that delighted me as much as Nicholson's heroic criminals in Blacksheep! Blacksheep!)

But the bar is set, and with each new book and technique, I feel that I come a little closer to nailing The Perfect Book.

Dotty J. Young said...

This has absolutely nothing to do with your lovely blog, however, I wanted you to know that, thanks to your book, at age 36, I just finished the first draft of my first novel. Less than an hour ago, actually. I have four kids, I hardly sleep, I have crazy amounts of stress in my life, yadda yadda yadda....but 2k to 10k gave me the structure I needed to be able to put words on the page in whatever time frame I could. Thank you. Even though I have a degree in creative writing, and have written 4 screenplays, you still gave me the framework I needed to make this sucker happen. Thank you so much.

Rachel Aaron said...

Thank you all for humoring my obsession with GBBO! And Dotty, MEGA CONGRATULATIONS! Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment, and I am so so so happy (chuffed!) that my book helped the process. I hope you're proud of yourself, because that is amazing! Well done, indeed! You get the Paul Hollywood handshake!

Anonymous said...

Not sure if it is any use. But even in the UK you can't get this on DVD, however the episodes are in UKs iTunes.
Not sure they are downloadable in the US though.

Teagan Marie said...

You can watch most of them for free streaming online