Friday, August 24, 2007

As a writing chef, are you a slow cooker or a flash fryer?

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Top Chef on TV this week, but my two obsessions in life—writing and food—have started to converge.

Because I’m on a killer deadline for A KILLER WORKOUT, I’ve been doing some stressed-out musing about my personal writing practices. And I’ve decided that as a writing “chef,” I am a slow cooker. You could even call me a crock-pot.

My forward progress through the first draft of a novel is chunky and irregular, like an ice cutter breaking its way across a packed-solid river. There’s the occasional hang-up on the ice as I stall for a few days, working and reworking difficult sections. My average forward progress rarely exceeds a page a day. Barely tugboat speed, in other words.

On the plus side, I write every day. Every day, at the same time of day: before dawn. Over the past year, I’ve missed only two days of writing—once when I was stuck in an airplane (when I fly, I can’t concentrate on anything more challenging than a Danielle Steel novel). And once when I was retching my guts into the toilet from a bout of stomach flu.

As a practitioner of this relatively stately pace, I reel in shock and awe when I read in blogs that some writers can tap out thousands of words a day. I figure those writers must be the flash fryers.

My best friend from college is a flash fryer. As a student, she redefined the time-honored, collegiate art of procrastination. She’d wait until well past midnight to start a paper that was due at eight a.m. the next morning. Finally, in a Selectric burst of typing and crumpled pages, she’d bang out her essay. And receive an A. One time she procrastinated so long on a paper about Chaka, King of the Zulus, that it endangered her graduation status. We still call it “Chaka time” when one of us is desperately behind on a deadline. (These days, my friend is an uber-successful sitcom writer. And still procrastinating, but man her shows are funny!)

I admire the flash fryers, but I am resigned to chugging along at my crock-pot writing pace. I have to go back (and back, and back) over sections, layering in changes, rethinking descriptors, building connections, to make the prose sing. Or at least, warble.

I figure that no matter what our cooking style, all writers are heading toward the same goal: to serve up sizzling prose to the reader’s table.

What about you? Are you a slow cooker, fast fryer, or something in-between?


Joe Moore said...

My co-writer, Lynn Sholes, and I are well into our fourth book together, and we have formed definite writing habits. We’re given a year to complete each book, so we start as a slow cooker. We know the premise along with the beginning and end of the story. But we spend this time playing with test chapters and “what if” ideas. It’s almost like drilling spot wells to see if we hit oil. Some are dry wells, but there’s always a gusher somewhere.

The second 5 months are where we move into the pressure cooker stage. We move through chapter drafts at an ever-quickening pace with less adjustment to the plot. This is where we attack the dreaded “middle” or muddle, as we like to call it.

The final 30 days, we jump into the frying pan on medium high. This is where something resembling controlled panic sets in. At this point, we have abandoned a linear approach and are jumping from one major plot point to the next in no apparent order. I may be drafting chapter 50 while Lynn is revising 42 or 70. During this time we are connecting all the dots.

We usually finish the book a few days before deadline and whip through it with a frantic line-edit. Once it’s emailed to our editor, we print a small number of copies for our trusted proof readers. We usually have 30-45 days to make our changes and those of the publisher.

Amazingly, the premise of the next book usually emerges within a week of finishing the first. Then we start the slow cooker, pressure cooker, frying pan, gas explosion routine again.

Hey, if you can’t stand the heat . . .

Kathryn Lilley said...

Sounds like the pressure and pace of starting a new restaurant, Joe! Okay, I *have* been watching Top Chef way too much, lol!

Monica Ferris said...

Joe Moore sounds a lot like me. I find that if I build a firm foundation, thinking carefully about plot points, then the thing begins to move under its own power, like a passenger liner that needs a couple of tugboats plus its own engines straining just to get away from the shore -- but then builds speed and soon anything in its way is in big trouble. Then I suppose the final scene is like crashing into a sandbar? Oh, well. . .

Kathryn Lilley said...

Perhaps our ship's final phase is being becalmed in fog as we wait for the editor's notes to come back!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Kathryn, What a great analogy. I'll have to think about this one. I suppose...I'm more like an electric skillet. I can go "red hot," but I can also bubble along. (This is cheating, right?)