Sometimes my mom will call me up and ask me for a recipe. At times I have it and will give it to her. At times, she has to deal with a bit of karma when I answer, “Well, I do this and put enough of this in to make it whatever, and bake it until it’s done, you know”. My mom has given me that answer plenty of times so it serves her right.
So here’s the thing. The way I cook vs. the way I bake is a lot like the way I write vs. the way I handle the non-writing part of my life.
When I’m baking, I follow a recipe. You have to worry about timing and proportions and things like leavening and consistency A LOT. So if I’m making cake or cookies or breads – anything with yeast, baking powder, baking soda, etc….I follow the recipe. But when I’m cooking a dinner dish – a casserole, something in the crockpot, roast, whatever…I usually don’t follow a recipe. I might sometimes use a guideline if it sounds good, but I often throw stuff together. Last week I thought the recipe for Turkey Meatball Chili needed to be saucier, so instead of 2 tbsp of tomato paste I put in the whole can. If I don’t have a certain veg I’ll throw another in – or add extra. Seasoning numbers? That’s a guideline only. Seriously. I wing it. A LOT.
When I’m not writing, my life is like a recipe. There is a schedule (writing is on it), and there is a list. Things are in a certain place and happen at a certain time. It’s very orderly and it works.
But when I’m writing, my process is like making chili. Or a better analogy – my Kitchen Sink Soup (recipe on my webpage). I start with a base – 2 characters with a goal, motivation and conflict and a happy ending by the last page. But everything else?
You got it. I’m what they call a pantser.
This wasn’t always easy to accept. I tried doing a synopsis ahead of time, or an outline. I tried doing up GMC charts. Tried writing to a three-act structure thinking it would make it easier when I got into trouble. Know what happened? I got into MORE trouble. Finally, finally, I came to accept that you know what? THIS IS MY PROCESS. And it works. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t get a tweak when it’s necessary – I totally think processes evolve with the writer. But I stopped fighting it. I embraced it. After I did that, I wrote faster and with less stress because I LEARNED TO TRUST IT.
Recently a friend was lamenting her word count compared to mine. I told her to stop. She has a certain process and it’s OKAY. She writes fabulous books, so what does it matter if it takes her a little longer, or if she has to have the front end of the book completely solid before moving on? You can’t judge yourself next to someone else’s process. And if yours works, why would you want to? Some people write a dirty draft and go back and do an overhaul. Some people write out of sequence. Some write a methodical word count every day and others strike when the iron’s hot. Some do extensive planning first and others “write into the mist” as Jo Beverley once said.
The key thing is to realize that your process is yours and it’s not right or wrong. It just is. I have learned that in every book there will come a time when a character surprises me. When a piece of dialogue or internal monologue will come out and be so powerful I will probably cry – and I haven’t planned it. That I COULDN’T plan it. That characters will take me in directions I never knew and make the book so much better than what I could have outlined. That is where the magic of my stories comes from. I know it will happen because it always does.
So if you’re a writer reading this – trust your process. Claim it, love it, embrace it. And I promise – things will be so much better when you decide to work WITH it rather than against it.
And if you’re a reader, you just got a glimpse into my rather twisted writer-mind. Meanwhile, in case my first analogy made you hungry, you can check out my recipes on my recipe page at http://www.donnaalward.com/recipecorner.htm