Friday, December 01, 2006

Cooking Up a Story

by Michael Dymmoch

Writing fiction has a lot in common with cooking. Like cooks, writers start out with a list of ingredients and simple instructions—plot, character, conflict, etc., and the rules of spelling and grammar. We pretty much follow the recipe—sometime ad nauseam—and usually come up with something we can serve. Great cooks and great writers learn the rules and understand the purpose of each ingredient, master the basics, then improvise. Proportions are important—too much flour, or exposition, and the result is flat. To much spice, or sex—you get the idea. But great writers, like great chefs, eventually abandon the measuring spoons and adjust the ingredients to taste.

Good cooks and writers also learn to keep basic ingredients around and to use whatever else they have at hand. Need a quick meal? Look in the fridge. If you’ve got eggs and herbs you can make a great omelet. Leftovers? Soup or stew or shepherds’ pie. Need details to make your story credible? Just check the nightly news. Or take a ride on the bus. (Last night the #22 bus was stopped at Clark & Belden forever because CPD had closed the intersection to deal with a situation.) Or just look around—you’ll see stuff you couldn’t make up. (A sign over an auto repair shop in LA reads: Graffiti no longer accepted here. Please find a day job! Thank you.)

In On Writing, Steven King (loosely paraphrased), said that a writer’s job isn’t to come up with a totally new idea—there aren’t any. Writers have to combine ideas no one’s ever put together before and express them with their own style. Sometimes you can combine things that don’t seem to go together and have a hit. I thinks that’s how pineapple pizza (Some of us love it.) and chocolate covered pretzels came to be. I know that’s how Death in West Wheeling was born—Homer, Mark Twain and Festus Hagen; Agatha Christie, Jeff Foxworthy and Roy Clark; The Odyssey, Mayberry and you-couldn’t-make-this-up news clips from AP.

Breaking the rules is half the fun—Ever tried French fried ice cream? I’m sure someone told Dan Brown the world wouldn’t buy a religion-based story. And who would have thought the tale of a precocious bird (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) would become a best-seller? Or a photographer on assignment in Iowa? (Bridges of Madison County) So sometimes wildly successful recipes turn out to be junk food. They’re still a (guilty) pleasure. Great chefs break away from the usual or do the usual uniquely.

And great writers follow Stephen King’s advice. Which is why Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is a classic story and one of the most brilliant philosophies ever written.

In The Book of Lost Things, thriller writer John Connolly combines grim fairy tales with the Blitz; and biting satire with brilliant insight into a child’s efforts to cope with unbearable loss. Part of the genius of the tale is the lyrical prose, which sets the once-upon-a-time tone and keeps horrifying incidents from becoming so graphic that they overwhelm the story.

Another example is 47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers. Reminiscent of Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang), Dave Barry (Big Trouble), and Carl Hiaasen (name your favorite), author Troy Cook turns the self help genre on its ear and throws Barbie ® in to boot.

Perhaps a study of any novel novel would reveal this master chef approach. Noticing the “ingredients” doesn’t detract from the pleasure of reading a wonderful story any more than studying art history detracts from appreciating art.

That’s my take. What do you think?


Libby Hellmann said...

Great post, Michael. You make it sound so easy. And fun. The problem is I'm not that good at making omelettes.. I wonder what that says about my writing...

Michael Dymmoch said...

Nothing. Your pizzas are terriffic.

Troy Cook said...

Hi, Michael. I completely agree with you. I think one of the hard things for writers is developing that sense where you know you need a little more of this, or a little less of that.

BTW, I'm honored that you categorized my book with some very talented authors. Wow!