Wednesday, August 28, 2013

So What's Your Recipe?

Don't ask for the recipe. There isn't one.
Post by Susan

I have become a woman who is temperamentally incapable of following a recipe.

Last night I made almond butter cookies from a peanut butter cookie recipe. I remembered that almonds and peanuts have different fat contents and are not equivalent, but I disregarded that. Too sweet for me, so cut the sugar by a third. And vanilla – who doesn't love vanilla? – might as well double that.

For dinner, there was a zuppa toscana knockoff that I've always winged. I don't use “soup” and “recipe”  in the same sentence. How hard can potatoes, kale and Italian sausage be? Put in a lot of garlic, and life is good.

I've often thought writing should be like cooking – creative, using unexpected combos, using what you have to make something new, adjusting it to suit your own tastes. I am generally fearless in the kitchen. I want to be fearless in my writing.

With the recent death of Elmore Leonard, his 10 rules for writing made the rounds on Facebook, followed bydiscussions as to when to break said rules. Writers often turn to the “rules,” whatever they may be, as someone might turn to a cookbook to get the precise recipe.

The terrifying thing is: in writing there is no recipe.

There's no sure way to write well or to be successful. Sure there are some good guidelines. Garlic and bananas are probably a bad combo. Passive is generally preferable to active. Too many adverbs are annoyingly, distractingly irritating. Pick a voice and stick with it. Show, don't tell.

But as I look down Mr. Leonard's list, all I hear in my head is “Never, never, never, don't, don't, don't.” And it doesn't matter. I could follow his recipe and write excruciating prose. I could break every rule and write brilliantly. I just wouldn't write like him.

I learned to cook from a mother whose operating instructions were “so it looks right.” My oldest brother adored her cornbread, so he followed her around the kitchen making her stop at each step and measure each ingredient. He turned his back, and she dumped in the milk. “How much did you put in?” he asked. “Until it looks right,” was all she could tell him.

You can read every book on writing there is, but ultimately, there is no recipe. You have to make it your own if you want it to speak in your voice. Keep working at it until it “looks right.”

Writing prompt: Grab your favorite list of rules. Try to break as many as you can. See what happens!

What are your favorite rules to break? What rules do you find most helpful?


Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Susan -- The manuscript I'm revising right now will have a prologue, multiple points of view with lots and lots of backstory, a timeline that yo-yos, and an occasional info dump. I feel like such a rebel. :D

Anonymous said...

Live dangerously, Patricia!

Sharon Himsl said...

You make a good point. Sticking to our true voice can be hard, stacked against the rules. Maybe it's why I seldom read these books to the end. An editor of H.Potter books said something similar at a workshop I attended. "Go with your instinct and voice first."

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